“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” Coping with Rude Language (page 2)
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 last month, this is the perfect follow-up to that discussion.
Why children acquire harsh language.
First, I’d like to outline our perspective. 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.
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.
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!
Then, 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.
Second (and this may sound odd, but bear with me), observe.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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