How to respond to kid's bad & hurtful words.
by Susie E. Caron © 2/15/15
I just got called a "Butt-Head"! I was engaged in a lively, playful chat with a little client. She skipped down the hall and into the play therapy room. Then she added, "You're a Butt-Head " along with a nervous giggle. Then she tilted her head and waited to see what I'd say or do.
I found this interesting and curious. I wondered what it meant. A part of me wondered if I’d put on a few pounds during Christmas. And, of course, there was a part of me that wanted to scold her for calling me a name. However, as her therapist, I didn’t want to do that. Instead, I paused a moment and think about what she expected me to do and how I could use this experience to help her grow. (I will tell you how I responded later in this article.)
That scenario got me to thinking about kids, their development, their propensity to use nasty words, like name calling and swear words. I also thought about how most adults react to such things. Most adults tell kids something like "Don't swear." or Don't call names, or they punish kids, with little success. There is a response that works much better. I'll tell you what that looks like. However, first I want to describe why kids ‘try’ using even distasteful words.
Why kids must ‘try.’
Kids just must try things out. It’s part of their DNA, Programming. They are always trying out something new or different. They are programmed to ‘try’ - to crawl, walk, run, swing, climb, ride bikes, play sports, and eventually even drive cars. Why do we become so surprised when they ‘try out’ different words as well? We know that they are capable of saying words just to be mean. However, they also try out words to learn about them and to see how adults respond.
My therapeutic response to this child client.
This child had called me a “Butt-Head” while she was still in the hallway, so when we entered the therapy room, I reminded her of the rules. “Gwen”, (not her real name) I said, “Remember that in the therapy room you may use whatever words you think you need. However, outside of this room, it’s never okay to call anyone names.” Gwen grinned at me and didn’t use the word “Butt-Head” again that day, or any other name calling words from her in any sessions following. My response to Gwen, showed her that I accepted her entirely (even her words) but I set limits on their use. This helped her to feel good about herself. It also subtly conveyed my belief that she could more wisely choose the words she uses in the future.
What you can do as a parent.
I know that you don’t want to say the same thing I did. But, you can address the words kids use as calmly as I did. Instead of reacting to bad words, name calling etc. Pause and think a moment about the child’s likely purpose behind the words. Sometimes words are just words. Sometimes they are spoken to try to figure out what they mean. Sometimes they are spoken to hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes, words convey deep feelings. Often kids use words that push your buttons and make you feel like yelling or punishing the child. However, when you get reactive, yell or punish kids for using such words, you inadvertently over-focus on the words and actually perpetuate their repetition.
How can you respond to reduce these hurtful words? This is what I recommend.
First, if kids are just playing and you overhear words, let them play, but have a chat with your children later about the words you heard. You could look them up in the dictionary or tell them what the words mean and what your rules are about them. You could say for example:
“I heard you calling each other the name ____________. Did you know that can be very hurtful? It means (or it makes people feel ---) I believe that you can use better words from now on when you play. Our house rules say ‘No name calling'.” Please remember this where ever you play.”
If children yell at you and use words you don’t like. Repeat the words and say something like:
“John you just told me you hated me.”
Then tell him calmly how that makes you feel.
“I feel sad when you say that, and, I want you to know, I love you and I will always love you.” Now tell him,
“Instead of saying you hate me, how about telling me “I’m really mad, or disappointed or sad about this Mom (Dad). Then I understand what’s upsetting you and we can talk about it.”
One note of caution: If John (Jane) is yelling and using bad words, he will need a cooling off period before you can use the sentences I just described. Send him to his room, or outdoors to calm down. When he returns, just accept him fully back into the family activity. (Without a lecture.)This is not the time to discuss his behaviors or words. Instead, wait until you both are in a better mood and sit down with him to chat calmly about the upsetting event. This will go much better for you both and you can restore your connection to one another at this time.
Hopefully these tips will help you respond rather than react to your childs’ trying’ words that hurt.
Remember Twee’ means you and me,
And together we can build great kids.
Susie E. Caron
Susie E. Caron MA,
Author, Blogger, Podcaster,
Christian, Wife, & Mother, helps build parent-child relationships, 1 blog, book & podcast at a time.
Welcome! I recently retired from combined careers in teaching, psychotherapy, and parent coaching to spend more time writing.
When I'm not busy creating books or articles, you might find me looking for dark chocolate or riding my beautiful horse Apple in the woods and fields of Vermont.
These articles are for educational and self-help purposes only and are not intended as psychotherapy.
If you experience unusual symptoms or discomfort please see your medical or mental health practitioner.
No patent liability is assumed for use of the information contained. The author disclaims any responsibility for loss or risk for use or application of this material.
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Blog Reviews & Thank You!
July 13 at 7:17pm ·
Just wanted to say that I love your posts about the different ways to connect/relate/understand your child. It has given me a new approach towards understanding my daughter and allowing HER to tell me how she feels instead of me suggesting to her how she should feel. Thanks Susie!