Name-Calling in the Family

When children feel upset, they may express their feelings in less than ideal ways. As adults, we can express our feelings maturely and without conflict (there are exceptions though!). However, as children are children, they can resort to insults and name-calling when they feel slighted, without any regard to the feelings of other people.

If name-calling is a problem in your family, consider the following tips:

What is Name-Calling?
Children often use words like “stupid,” “baby,” “idiot,” “moron,” and so on when addressing their siblings in anger. While parents do not generally “name-call” in the traditional way, the use of negative labels can have a similar effect. When a parent calls a child’s behavior “babyish,” “silly,” “mean,” “rude,” or “selfish,” he or she is in effect, also name-calling. Parents may not even realize that they are name-calling when they use these negative labels. They can innocently put these words into many simple, appropriate-sounding sentences – such as those below:

  • “You are being so rude.”
  • “What you are saying is rude.”
  • “Don’t be so rude.”
  • “That was so rude.”

Whatever grammatical structure is used, the negative label rude will be absorbed by the child. Parents cannot minimize the effects of a negative label by trying to hide it in various sentence structures. If the label is used anywhere in a sentence, it will be felt as an insult by the child. Of course the parent is simply trying to educate the child and not trying to insult him or her, but the child does not necessarily understand that.

Negative Effects of Name-Calling
Any negative label or insult has the potential to hurt a child’s feelings. Children who are frequently insulted by their siblings often remember the experience with pain even in adulthood. Children who have been insulted by their parents (i.e. being called “stupid,” “selfish,” “bad,” “good-for-nothing” etc.) also often retain the pain throughout adulthood.

However, remembered pain is not the worst consequence of name-calling. Far worse is the impact name-calling can have on personality development. Even fully grown adults who are subjected to regular insults (verbal abuse) are eventually affected by it: they come to feel less adequate, less competent and less lovable the more they experience being insulted. This effect is much much more powerful in childhood when a youngster’s sense of self is not yet fully formed. At this point, being called names can leave the child truly believing that he or she is damaged, worthless, useless, bad and defective, as well as unlovable. Once a child entertains such notions about him/herself, the child tends to act in ways that are consistent with that poor self-image. So a child who is regularly called a particular negative label, comes to believe that he IS that label. The label can be crippling, causing him to give up trying or project negative judgments onto others for the rest of his life (“I know no one really likes me”). Of course the negative labels used regularly by parents tend to be much more damaging than those used only by siblings, but the effects of sibling-abuse must not be underestimated.

Model Appropriate Behavior
Parents can help their kids learn to use positive words instead of negative labels. The first step is providing a model. This means that parents never call children names – they never use negative label or insulting language. Many people wonder how it is possible to correct a child without using a negative label. The secret is this: whenever you want to use a negative label to accurately describe a child’s behavior (i.e. “rude”), replace the label with the exact opposite word. For example, instead of saying to Junior, “You are being rude,” you can say, “You need to be polite when speaking to me.”  Always use the desired label instead of the offensive label. In this way, your children only hear your target words (your goals for them) throughout their 20 years growing up with you. This helps program their brains to remember your goals. Positive labels encourage positive growth whereas negative labels work the opposite way. If all your children hear is “stupid,” “lazy,” “selfish,” “wild” and so on, they will associate those words with their identity and all they are capable of being.

A few more examples of label switching are below:

  • messy becomes clean and tidy
  • disorganized becomes organized
  • selfish becomes generous
  • careless becomes careful

Your sentence then changes from, “You’re acting like a baby” to “I know that you know how to be mature. Please act that way now.”  Similarly, you can change “You’re being nasty to your brother,” to “Please be kind to your brother.”

Direct Teaching Techniques
Now that you have provided the model (and by the way, this also means that you don’t call your spouse or other people names), you are ready to teach your children. The following process can be used:

  1. Explain to your children that name-calling hurts and is harmful. Tell them that they must express their annoyance, frustration or upset simply by naming their feelings without adding insults. For example, it is fine to say to a sibling, “I disagree,” or “I don’t like what you did,” or “I don’t like your idea,” “Stop doing that” and so on.
  2. Make a clear consequence for name-calling. Whenever someone insults another person, they will have receive a previously established consequence of your choice. Tell the child what consequence he will receive for name-calling in the future and then give him that consequence after subsequent name-calling. For a complete list of appropriate negative consequences and the exact way in which they should be applied for name-calling, see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe.
  3. Apply the selected consequence EVERY TIME you hear name-calling.  If improvement doesn’t happen over a few weeks, select a different consequence and try again.

Ridding your house of name-calling is a service to your family and even to your grandchildren, as the inter-generational chain of verbal abuse stops with your new programme. Good luck!

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