Name-calling is a difficult behavior for parents to change, particularly in young, active boys. But its a problem among all kids and at all ages. The challenge is that name-calling is a very frequent behavior (it can occur at any time of day, and up to 20-30 plus times a day), and because its frequent, it slips by our radar screens. Many episodes don’t get addressed. After a while, they become routine to young children, and the adults around them.
Its different when a child hits or punches or swears. Those behavior are much less frequent. They stand out. They are obvious to tag as “problem” behaviors. Hence, parents and teachers tend to jump on these more quickly and tend to address them more effectively.
Here are some ideas for decreasing name-calling.
1. Figure out when and why the name-calling is happening. It might be something a boy likes to do in order to get a rise out of people. It might be related to specific events or people. Ask yourself, are there any times of day that name-calling tends to occur more often. Such as before nap, when tired, before or after specific transitions, indoors versus outdoors, during unstructured activities, eating, or when on the playground? Ask yourself, are there certain people who get called names more often than others, such as, peers, siblings, or parents? Usually there are patterns. Finding a pattern is helpful in isolating some of the situational things that we can control and helps us be more prepared to parent effectively.
2. You need a strategy. This is what i recommend. Pick one “bad name” or “name-calling episode” to focus on. Clearly tell your son or daughter that “from here on… anytime you say (bad name), you will get a time-out or I will take something away”. Make certain your child is looking at you when you say this – and ask him or her to repeat it back. That way, there’s no confusion over what the new rules are. If a child is older than 5 or 6, you can try to list a few bad names or “all bad names” and try to attack the problem more aggressively.
3. Then act! When your son or daughter name-calls (and boys tend to test you on this…), you can place him or her in the corner of a room and look away, and make sure you completely ignore them for few moments. If they escalate with worse behavior, ignore them longer. You can also remove whatever your child is playing with, or is engaged with, at that time.
4. Stop using words or warnings or lectures about why name-calling is not nice. They know its wrong. Verbal reminders and lectures don’t work, particularly on boys. For boys, when they experience a spatial change (like going to another part of the room or having an object removed) they notice and can more easily shift their behavior. Older boys or girls can go off to their room for a few minutes. They will want to return to where its more social and fun – and that’s the motivation to change.
Know that if a young boy or girl can get get your attention (even negative attention) for name-calling, they will often pursue it. Its not that they are a bully or a budding sociopath. It may be that they are making a game of it. Boys, for example, tend to like using words to feel powerful and to get reactions from others. Again, talking to a boy and warning him will not tend to help very much in changing his behavior – and actually – it might make things worse. It feeds him more attention.
5. Catch kids not doing it! Realize that if the behavior isn’t happening when it usually does, your child is working to suppress it. That deserves something positive. You can tell your son or daughter something like this: “Hey, you’ve been doing a good job not calling your sister a name. Here’s a hug…”
6. Always remain calm. Don’t let your son or daughter see you get angry. That only increases a child’s stress, adrenalin, or may accidentally empower him or her. Be calm, look away, talk less, and use changes in the environment to make your point (pulling objects away, briefly sitting off to the side, ignoring them for a while, sending them to their room, etc.).
I hope these suggestions help. Certainly, we need to give kids some space to express themselves and their emotions through words, even words that are powerful. Sometimes those words aren’t nice and have the potential to hurt others. Other times, these words do serve a purpose socially. They can let others know we are angry. The goal here is to focus on only those words that are most hurtful and inappropriate and apply the above techniques.
Finally, and maybe most important, don’t forget the old phrase… Monkey see… Monkey do…. Keep in mind your kids are watching your every move, and they learning more by what you say and do, rather than what you tell them they should do!
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