How to respond when your child uses mean words

 In Managing Big Feelings, Managing Challenging Behaviours

Has your child ever said something to you that was so horribly mean, that you recoiled in shock? Something that made you question the kind of job you’re doing as a parent, and felt like a deeply personal attack on you and your family?

Maybe it was words like:

  • “I hate you!”
  • “I wish you were dead!”
  • “You’re the worst mummy ever!”
  • “You’re stupid and ugly!”
  • “I wish my brother/sister was never born!”
  • “I never want to see you again!”
  • “I wish you weren’t my mummy!”
  • “You’re a big fat poopy head!”

When your child uses mean words it can really come as a shock. Hearing this kind of language from the mouth of your sweet little babe can quite literally take your breath away. And it can leave you feeling really worried. About them, about your relationship, and about where they may have been exposed to this kind of language.

And I understand your concern. I’ve heard all of these before. From my own children, and from the parents of families I work with. The reality is, kids say horrible, hurtful things sometimes. You’re not alone. You’re also not failing as a parent, or raising a soulless little delinquent. I swear.

So why do kids use this language?

Children have immature, underdeveloped brains. And using language to express how they feel is still a pretty new thing for them. Think about it: from the moment they were born, your child has used their little body, their face, and their voice to express how they feel. By crying, yelling, grunting, squealing, scowling, frowning, smiling, scrunching up their face, balling up their fists and furiously kicking their little legs. Babies and toddlers are GREAT at letting you know how they feel without speaking a word. And as parents, we tend to respond to them promptly when they communicate their needs in this way.

But as they get older, our expectations of them change. They begin to talk. They learn how to form sentences. Those sentences become more complex. And we expect them to communicate to us differently. We expect them to tell us how they feel by “using their words”.

But this is still new to them. And human emotions are SO complex. Sometimes they simply don’t have the words to explain to us that they feel scared, and anxious, and disappointed, and angry and frustrated and sad – all at once! It’s confusing. I mean, sometimes us grown ups can’t put into words exactly how we feel, right? And we have fully developed, mature brains that have been doing this for years.

The thinking brain

The other thing to remember is that when we become dysregulated – both kids and adults – we lose our ability to access our prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for planning, reasoning, decision making, impulse control, and yes – language.

So when we experience an intense emotion and we become dysregulated, we lose the ability to access our words. This is why when you become really angry about something, you stumble and trip over your words. You struggle to get the words out and you struggle to find the words to convey exactly what you mean. You may say things you don’t mean, things that don’t make sense, or things that are not even words! You may tell whoever (or even whatever) you’re angry at that you hate them. Or you may resort to simply swearing and yelling loudly in frustration. You cannot access sophisticated language when you’re in this state.

And neither can your child.

Your tiny little person, who is still so new to using their words, can’t quite find the words they need. So they find words they know. Words that to them, explain the complexity and depth of the emotions they are feeling. They find the worst words they can think of. Words they can reach quickly. The most impactful words. Because they need us to know just how awful they feel in that moment.

But we want them to learn how to communicate their needs in respectful ways, right? So what can you do when your child uses mean words?

How to respond when your child uses mean words

1. Remember that it’s not personal

I know it feels like it in the moment, but your child is not intentionally trying to hurt you. They’re not being disrespectful, mean, cruel or bratty. And they don’t really hate you or wish you were dead. They are simply expressing how they feel the best way they can. Try to remember that what you are seeing is the result of an immature, overstressed brain.

2. Don’t respond with your own mean words

It’s tempting to throw back an “I hate you too!” , or a “How dare you speak to me like that!” in the heat of the moment. But this is only going to escalate an already emotionally charged situation. And if we punish, scold or threaten children when they use this language, we inadvertently add another emotion into the mix: shame.

When we shut children down or send them away for expressing emotions to us, they only learn that we do not want to hear about how they feel. They learn that big emotions should be dealt with alone and that they are wrong or bad for feeling these. This makes it even less likely that they will communicate with us about their emotions in the future.

3. Focus on the message, not the delivery

Your child is doing the best they can. Punishing or reprimanding them for their choice of words isn’t going to solve much. Remember, when your child is dysregulated, their thinking brain is offline. So trying to reason with them or explain why their choice of words is unacceptable is not going to be effective in the heat of the moment.

Instead, think about what your child is trying to communicate to you. How are they feeling in this moment? What is the message they are trying to convey to you with these words? Are they feeling angry? Are they disappointed about something? Do they feel left out since their baby brother was born? Focus on this message, rather than its delivery, and empathise with that.

Offering empathy and validating how your child feels doesn’t mean you condone or agree with their language (or their behaviour). It just means that in the moment, you are choosing to really listen to what they are communicating to you and that you’re willing to try and understand their experience.

4. Model appropriate language

Often our children reach for this kind of language to express how they feel because it’s the only language they have. Many children have access to only a limited emotional vocabulary – angry, sad and happy. They run into problems when the emotion they feel doesn’t fit neatly into one of these categories and they have no label for what they are feeling. How can we expect them to “use their words” if they literally do not have them?

The solution of course, is to explicitly teach and also model appropriate labelling of emotions. We can do this in the moment, by giving a name to the emotion we think our child might be feeling: ” You are feeling so angry right now, huh?” “I hear that you want a new mummy. You sound really frustrated with me!”

We can also do this by labelling our own emotions when we experience them. “Being stuck in this traffic is so frustrating!” or “I’m disappointed that this rain means we can’t go to the park today.”

5. Teach skills

Once your child (and you) are calm, you can work on building their skills and helping them learn to express themselves in more appropriate ways. By listening to the message underneath their mean words, you can identify any potential problems they are trying to communicate to you and come up with solutions. Are they questioning their place in your family since their baby sibling came along? Maybe you can make time for some one on on one time. Are they feeling sad about some friendship difficulties at school? Maybe you can role play some scenarios with them, or perhaps they just need a sympathetic ear.

This is also the time to explicitly teach them how to communicate their needs to you next time. Give them the language they can use. Talk to them about how to identify that feeling in their body and how they can better manage it next time. Once your child is able to effectively label their emotions, you are able to find ways to manage them together. You can find a range of printable resources in the shop that will help your child identify and understand their emotions and will make learning about them lots of fun, too!

The emotions won’t stop, of course, but the mean words will. And as a bonus, you’ll find you have a healthy, connected, and trusting relationship with your child.

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