How To Deal With Mean Words From My Child?

How should you deal with your kids when they say shit that hurts your feelings?

How do we deal with “mean words” if we aren’t punishing them? What did OUR parents do when we mouthed off to them? They sent us to our room, told us we were brats, that they won’t be spoken to that way, and usually removed a privilege. Did that teach us not to call them names or swear at them? No. It taught us not to do it in front of their faces. It taught us that if we have big emotions that we don’t know how to put a name to, we’re going to be shunned and punished for it. We feel shame, because we were shamed. So we’d better keep it to ourselves and figure it out without help.

If we did the same, we would not be raising emotionally resilient children.

We’re not teaching them how to deal with conflict constructively and how to express their big emotions and process them. We’re not teaching them now to collaboratively problem solve. So they won’t grow up to be adults who know how to do those things! How do we deal with it when our kids say things that are mean, rude or socially acceptable? We empathize.

Empathizing is a habit we have to consciously work on establishing at first, and then after a lot of practice it becomes second nature.

I do that by speaking to their emotions, not their words. In order to learn, both the teacher and the student need to be regulated and calm. When we aren’t calm, the part of our brain that uses reason turns off. We start using our limbic system, which has no reason and is highly emotional. If you’re trying to reason with your highly emotional child, you might as well be talking to a brick wall. The only thing that is sticking are the feelings that you’re making your child feel in that moment. The one and only thing they take away from that interaction – is shame. Later, when they do calm down, and their neocortex comes back online, they might think about why they felt shame, and at that point your words are no longer there. Their takeaway is that when they express their desires, they get shamed.

We want them to learn how to express their needs and desires, be patient, and consider the consequences their desires have on others. They can’t learn any of that when they’re primarily using their limbic system, because their limbic system has no reason!

When we talk to kids about emotions, we generally just use 3: sad, mad, and happy, because we think it makes it simpler for them to master.

This is great until they feel something that doesn’t quite fit into those 3 categories and they don’t have the words to express it. The problem with emotions is that they exist in one part of our brain (limbic system) but we need another part (neocortex) to label them. You can’t think about your emotions or process them until you have a label for them! Kids will try to express themselves, using words they’ve heard before but don’t really understand the meaning of – but they understand the tone in which they were said in. This is why when really young kids hear swear words they can’t help but repeat them. They don’t understand the meaning, but they understand the emotion being put into them.

Your 3 year old has no idea what it means to “hate you” but they know it’s said with a lot of pain. Your six year old doesn’t know what “a fucker” is, but they know it’s said with angst and force, and it makes you upset, which makes them feel powerful. We just need to teach them to use more appropriate and precise words than mad, sad, and happy.

Validate their feelings, by speaking to the emotions behind the mean words.

If your 4 year old says that you’re mean and they hate you – empathize! Empathy doesn’t mean acceptance. It just means that you understand what they’re TRYING to say! You’re recognizing the intent and leaving the vocabulary. When they’re hurling insults at you, you want to be focused on how they’re feeling and giving them language that they can use to accurately reflect that.

My oldest’s kindergarten teacher called me in stitches last year because he came in and answered the question of “how are you today?” with “I’m all discombobulated.” He learned that word because I’ve identified that feeling for him many, many times. Once they have more accurate words to describe how they’re feeling- you’ll notice that their emotions don’t get so high so fast anymore. They can say “I’m feeling lonely.” and because they can express it, we can respond much faster and much more constructively!

Mean words are just that – poor word choices.

We need to look beyond the limits of the words they have available to them and teach them to express themselves more accurately, and help them solve the problems they’re trying to identify for us. Children who have a varied and strong emotional vocabulary, and are accustomed to adults helping them solve problems grow up to be much more stable, open, and articulate adults.

Can you see how if we approach children assuming that they’re doing the best they can, we don’t need to punish them? When we help them solve their problem and think critically and identify their emotions, the problems just gradually diminish. That doesn’t mean they stop having big emotions, but the big emotions stop controlling them and they become easier to manage, allowing us to turn our attention to the solution.

It’s not an easy habit to get into, it does take quite a bit of effort. If you need some support with this or any other parenting tips, make sure you come join us in the Parenting Posse. to continue the conversation!

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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