Q. My kids are driving me crazy using the “S” word. They’re using the word “stupid” to angrily address parents and siblings. As in, “You're stupid!” or, “Stupid Mommy!” I imagine that as time goes on, my kids will come into possession of bone fide curse words and I want to get on top of this now. What do you suggest?
Thanks for your question on young children using “bad” words at home. Since we addressed tone and the way things are said in “Don't Take That Tone with Me!”, this is the perfect follow-up to that discussion.
Why children acquire harsh language.
Children begin using words that raise the hair on the back of our necks after they’ve heard others use those words, or after those words have been aimed at them. Grownups use this kind of language when they’re upset, and the behavior trickles down toward children, usually with the original emotional heat welded to the words. Because harsh behavior spreads like a bad cold from adult to child and then from child to child, just about every child on the planet is exposed to name-calling, or bad words behavior, sooner or later. So it's not your child's fault that he has acquired harsh language, any more than it’s his fault that he gets a runny nose. (If your child hits, push or otherwise strikes out when using this kind of language, our Helping Your Child with Aggression class is for you.)
When children use harsh language, they may not understand what the words mean literally: it’s the tone that makes an imprint on them, and it’s the tone that raises parental warning flags. That electric emotional charge irritates the child's delicate internal system, and makes the words stick like little globs of muck in their innocent minds. Then, when the child is feeling isolated, threatened or upset, out comes this little pre-fabricated routine of harsh words and a harsh tone, just the way he once heard it. It isn't what the child really wants to be doing, but he literally can’t think of any other way to signal that he is feeling badly. He’s upset. His behavior says, “See what I've been exposed to? It's nasty and disturbing. I'm going to show you how awful it is.” Then, he gives you a vivid picture of what he’s heard at school or on the street. It’s a cry for help.
Traditional interventions don’t really help with children using bad words.
If you demand that your child stop, and get angry at him for having this difficulty, he may stop out of fear, but the anger and the fear hamper his intelligence. One more experience of harshness makes it even more likely that he will fall into this behavior again soon. Meeting an upset child with harshness just compounds the tension he's under. It's not the best way to go, though generations of parents have given that kind of heated response. The child uses the harsh language silently in his mind, stewing with anger, and it all pops out later, having festered. We’ve all had this experience: “Go ahead. Shut me up now. You’ll pay later,” is the bitter attitude that punishment fosters.
On the other hand, reasoning with a child who's using bad language doesn’t work that well, either. Reasoning can sometimes work to distract a child for a time, but it doesn't address the emotional tension he’s harboring, the tension that sets the stage for the harsh behavior. That’s the real cause of his troubles, and It's that tension that needs to be addressed.
But we definitely do not recommend just letting name-calling behavior go unchecked. It’s frightening to children to have their hurtful behavior ignored, and it wears on everyone in the environment. Some response must be found that honors the goodness of the child, but definitely curbs the harshness.
Start with yourself!
If you react with upset or anger or sudden outbursts, you won’t have much flexibility with your child until you’ve handled your own storehouse of feelings. There are important questions, the answers to which will help you defuse the situation so that you can be of real help to your child.
Find someone who you can ask to listen to you, simply listen, while you talk about what happens inside of you when harsh language is being used. You don’t need advice. You need someone’s supportive and undivided attention while you explore what’s behind the heat that erupts when your child needs help from you.
That heat comes from some tense experience you have carried forward from your own experience. Were you punished harshly for talking that way? Did you see siblings being punished? What kinds of language did your parents use when they became angry? What's your history with the exact word your child is using that triggers a big response from you? These questions are important, and answering them may put you in touch with how you felt as a child, how you were treated, and with the longings for closeness and belonging that you had. A good cry or a good laugh will help you relax.
Try to remember: your child is going to turn out all right! He needs some guidance, but you don't have to worry that a few bad word incidents mean he's on the road to disaster!
Second (and this may sound odd, but bear with me), observe. When does your child use these words? What kinds of situations? Right when he comes home from school or daycare? When his siblings are playing with his things? Only around a group of children? When you've been busy for the last ten minutes? Fifteen minutes? When he faces a transition? Try to figure out what the situations are that make him feel separate, lonely, or disconnected enough to act harshly. There are clues to places where he loses his confidence in the timing of his behavior. For instance, one child I knew only called names when he came into preschool after a group of children had formed around an activity. Entering the group, he must have felt scared that there wasn’t room for him. So he called his friends names! Once you understand the situations that strain your child’s confidence, try offering support. Here are a couple of ways to do that.
Use Special Time strategically
Try Special Time. It's a very simple but powerful tool, especially when used just before or after challenging situations. For instance, do 10 minutes of Special Time right when you get home at night, if he's using harsh language late in the day. Or if he tends to mouth off by 10 a.m. on Saturday mornings, then start Saturdays with a good 20 minutes of Special Time. Or offer it several times a day, just 5 minutes, if he's targeting his sibling. It can serve to help a child feel more connected, and get reconnected. It's a proactive tool–do it before trouble starts, and see if it helps.
Set limits with warmth and, when you can, with humor.
Special Time won’t erase the use of harsh language, but it will make the limits you set work to help relieve your child’s frightened or aggressive behavior. You need to stop the harsh language, but with good will toward your child. You don't have to pull a serious parental power play every time a child uses a harsh word. You DO need to address that behavior, the very first time it appears. But you don't have to be the bad guy. It works much better if you assume that your child is tender and loving, and is just trapped underneath some unpleasant bad feelings for the moment. To help him get free, try something like one of the following interventions:
• Good naturedly scoop him up in your arms, and say, “Ahhk! I heard that S-word! I heard you say “S-lovely!” Nuzzle him, cuddle him, see if you can get him laughing with the physical affection you offer him.
• Say, “When you say “Stupid!” I say, “Here comes the Stupid sweeper!” Then, be a silly Stupid Sweeper, lumbering around after him with your arms out, in mock fork-lift fashion, attempting to scoop him up in your arms or throw him over your shoulders and bounce him around a bit.
• Say, “Oooh! I'm going to get anybody who says that Stupid word! Here I come!” and chase him around, taking care not to catch him too soon. When you finally succeed, toss him and wrestle him some, affectionately, with warmth.
Why do this? Because your child is signaling that he can't think–the use of harsh language means that he can't feel his connections with anyone in the family. Playing with good humor, getting laughter and affection going, tussling and wrestling and chasing in order to make lively contact without trying to punish, helps a child recover the feeling that it's good to be in the family. Your protest, goofy as it is, sets a model for protesting when he is called names, or when others are called names and you're not there to moderate the action. The laughter and physical play will help him relax, offload the bad feelings he's been carrying, and get oriented to being a cooperative member of the family again. Don’t be surprised if he wants to play “the Stupid Game” over and over again: he can feel the healing action of the laughter and the affection you are offering, and he wants to soak up as much of that as he can. He’s trying to recover from the effects of behavior that has rankled his system. His instincts are good!
Often, a good cry is waiting in the wings for a listener.
If there’s sadness or fear stored underneath his use of harsh language, those feelings will burst forth when you tell him it’s time to stop playing the “Stupid Game,” or when you simply reach over, put your arm around him, and say gently, “I can’t let you say those things to me. What happened to make you want to call me Stupid?”
You don’t always need to respond with humor: sometimes, just moving in, offering eye contact and warmth, and a limit, will help him notice how badly he is feeling underneath. His feelings will make him want to run away, or call you more names, or lash out with fists or feet. Stay nearby, keep him from hurting anyone, and follow him if he leaves. He needs you nearby so that he can feel the possibility of connecting with you. He needs a listener.
When the name-calling happened, he was stunned, and probably frightened. He couldn’t tell anyone how he felt. Now, he has you. Now is the time to pour out the upset and confusion and anger he absorbed. He may aim his upset at you. But if he’s crying, perspiring, or thrashing, your listening is a healing force that’s going to relieve the stored tension that’s behind this behavior. He may not cry right when you stop the name-calling, but find a little excuse five minutes later: his noodles have too much cheese on them, or water has spilled onto his shirt. Don’t quibble with the way he began to cry, no matter how trivial it is. It kicks the door open so he can feel the hurt that throbs and bothers. LISTEN. He's clearing out the emotional roots of the harsh language kick that he's been on. When someone was calling him names, or calling his friends names, he didn't protest, he was too frozen or confused to do so. So now, safe with you, he can finish the protest he would have loved to launch, if he had had support while names were being called.
Listen, be patient, keep directing him gently toward looking again at his cheesy noodles, or at the wet spot on his shirt, but leave lots of time for him to have these big feelings first. He'll get back to functioning when he's finished, and you'll see positive changes in his behavior soon.
We call this Staylistening. It’s not a way our parents knew to help us. It’s challenging to do. But it is the very best thing I know of in helping children rise above the behaviors they’ve been frightened by, but then have adopted.
Let us know how this works!