There is a saying: “sticks and stone can break your bones but names will never hurt you.” How wrong that is! Verbal abuse can truly hurt – not only in the short term but also for extended periods of time, sometimes even a lifetime! Inappropriate verbal behavior in the form of verbal abuse is common in family members: sarcasm, name-calling, insulting, yelling, swearing and many other forms of hurtful and diminishing communications. Children and teens sometimes learn this kind of behavior from their parents, but just as often they pick it up in the schoolyard or on the block. They can also learn it online and through social media. Even television, movies and songs can teach kids how to use language inappropriately.
In order to help children stop engaging inappropriate verbal behavior, consider the following tips:
The Parental Model is Important
Children and teens will learn that people of all ages communicate very poorly at times. Their friends, neighbors and relatives will provide live demonstrations of inappropriate verbal behavior. Parents are always the most powerful teachers, however, so it is crucial that YOU model appropriate verbal behavior for your child. Even when you are frustrated, tired, irritable, sick, stressed or enraged, always speak in a respectful manner. If you give in to shouting and cursing, chances are very high that your kids will learn to express strong emotion that way too.
Appropriate verbal behavior is more than controlled anger. It is also behavior that shows the correct respect to others in all circumstances. For instance, children need to show an extra level of respect toward parents, grandparents, teachers and elders. Again, your own model of appropriate verbal behavior to this class of people will be important. Be aware of how you sound on the phone when talking to your parents, and watch yourself when you are speaking to them in person – no matter how frustrated you may feel at a given moment. Your child is listening and learning.
Your Home is a Training Ground
Don’t allow your child to practice verbal abuse. The more your child whines, yells, snarls or otherwise communicates inappropriately, the more likely it is that he or she will continue in that way throughout life. The more someone does something, the easier it is to do again. This is due to practice and the fact that more neural pathways are produced for repeitive behaviors. People don’t just wake up one day when they’re 30 years old and start yelling and swearing; this is something that they’ve learned in their formative years. Therefore, help your child to STOP inappropriate verbal behavior as soon as you see it. Use the full gamut of parenting techniques to encourage appropriate verbal behavior and discourage inappropriate verbal behavior (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe for a complete program). Whether your child is rude to you or to a babysitter, relative or sibling – get to work on it right away and nip it in the bud! If it has already been going on for a decade, you can still address it starting today. You need a zero tolerance policy for inappropriate verbal behavior. Any behavior that others would consider obnoxious or any behavior that would harm your child’s relationships should be targeted. This can include not only direct verbal abuse as described above, but also mumbling, repeating oneself, talking on and on and on without regard to the listener’s attention span, speaking too loudly and speaking too quietly. All inappropriate verbal behaviors can cause your child pain in his or her own social world, therefore it is important not to ignore them and just hope that they will clear up by themselves. Do what you can do to help your child and when you’ve exhausted your own ideas, call upon professional help.
Keep the Bigger Picture in Mind
Inappropriate verbal behaviors may reflect emotional issues that require attention. A child who expresses anger through inappropriate verbal behavior may need to learn better communication techniques but he or she may also need help to address the underlying anger itself. A child who mumbles or speaks too quietly may need to learn how to express him or herself in more attractive and age-appropriate ways, but he or she may also need help in addressing social anxiety or insecurity. In other words, both the behavior and the emotions often need to be addressed. Professional help can often help in the deepest, most thorough and quickest way, so ask your doctor for a referral if you have any concerns whatsoever about your child’s feelings.