Teaching kids (and yourself!) about hurtful words.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” – a familiar mantra we all used at one point or another during childhood. As children it may have provided us with some momentary mental toughness, but as adults we have learned that it is not true – words can hurt. Words are powerful creatures that have the ability to inspire or discourage, build up or tear down, create positivity or negativity.

I was recently reminded of this lesson when picking my 4-year-old up from preschool. After a long day of school, she was irritable, tired, and hungry.  I tried to let her attitude roll off my back, but when she said to me, “You are the worst Mommy EVER!”  I was completely blindsided.  The logical part of me knew she was exhausted, but my emotional side was hit hard and tears were brought to my eyes. How could my baby say such a thing to me? How could I teach her that her words are powerful enough to hurt another person?

Here are some steps to help you get through situations like this:

Cool down, then make time to talk
Take a few minutes to get away from each other.  In my situation, we were confined to the car after school, so I asked my daughter not to talk to me until we got home. This gave me time to re-evaluate the situation and figure out how to handle it.  Once we were home, I felt ready to sit down and have a relaxed conversation.

Kids learn by example, so it was better to take a few minutes to compose myself as opposed to reacting in the heat of the moment.

Connect situations together by using past examples
When I taught elementary school, one of the reading comprehension strategies I utilized was to have students make connections between their own life experiences and those of the characters in a book. This helped them better understand and empathize with a storyline.  I have found this strategy also works well with my daughter when it comes to understanding social situations. In this case, I reminded her how sad she felt when her good friend said they were no longer “best friends.”  She was able to recall how hurt she felt, I told her when she said that I was the worst mommy in the world, it hurt my feelings in the same way.

Teach them to take responsibility for their words
Kids need to learn that what they say really does matter. We have to not only teach them that their words can hurt others, but we also have to model how to correctly apologize. A good place to begin practicing this skill is at home – apologize to them when you make a mistake or when you are short with them. Likewise, encourage your child to say “I’m sorry” for smaller misdemeanors at home through out the day.

In my house, we practice this skill frequently during the “Wrestle-mania” hour that precedes dinner every night.  If the kids are too rough or say something inappropriate, we stop play, help them apologize, applaud their efforts and move along!

Let them know they’re not alone
Through life experiences, conversations with other adults, reading parenting books, etc, I have learned that I’m not the only parent that has been told I was the “worst ever.” Conversely, I have also said some hurtful words to people I love and had to apologize. Share these experiences with your child– discuss past events where you were hurt or hurt someone else and how you rectified the problem.

As the parent, you are the role model and your children are eager to learn from you. Even if you have to fib a bit to make your story more exciting, it will help your child know they are not the only boy/girl to feel that way!

Say I love you
After our conversation was over, I hugged my little lady and told her I loved her to the moon and back.  As important as it was for her to learn a lesson about the power of words, it was just as important, if not more so, that she learned that we all make mistakes, and I am always going to be there to help her learn from them.

About the author: Katey Barron is a stay at home mom with her two children – ages 4 and 2.  She has a masters degree in elementary education and in her spare time enjoys teaching Zumba, painting, hiking, and traveling with her family.

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