“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” This is a common childhood rhyme but it couldn’t be more untrue. Words can cause scars that no one can see. I think a better phrase would be “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can scar for life”.
I recently attended a training that discussed trauma. I was very surprised to learn that emotional trauma frequently has as long-lasting effects as, and some even more so than, physical abuse (Developmental & Neurobiological Impact of Child Maltreatment & Abuse, Spinazzola). In discussing that statistic with those at the training, we discussed possible reasons. One common thread seemed to be that sexual and physical abuse can be isolated incidents while emotional abuse can often be ongoing. Also, we, as a society, do more prevention and intervention for sexual and physical abuse. Emotional abuse is often overlooked and not discussed.
So let’s discuss it. What is emotional abuse? It is when someone feels bad using words or actions. (So other forms of abuse can fall in this). For example, telling your child that they always do things wrong. Even if you say this when they just made a mistake, it can have far-reaching consequences. This can lower self-esteem and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When frustrated, it’s okay to express that frustration but try saying “This behavior frustrates me.” Or “It makes me unhappy when you act this way.”
We should try to focus on the actions and how they make us feel, instead of focusing on the child. Another example of emotional abuse would be “Why do you have to be so bad all the time.” Try instead “When you hit your sister, you are not behaving correctly.” Or “When you hit your sister, it upsets me as you are acting mean.” Again focus on your feelings and the actions instead of the kid being a bad kid.
Think about this: I frequently ask my clients if they feel they are bad and the majority feel they are bad kids. I then ask if they are bad kids or if they make bad choices. Some still say they are bad kids but others say they make bad choices. It is important that we as the adults in their lives help them understand this distinction. Most people are not bad people, we just make bad choices. The same goes for kids. By changing the way we speak to kids, we can help change how they feel about themselves.
"I'll be the mom, you be the sister."
This is a statement I make almost daily, usually to my oldest who is nine but sometimes to my three year old. I say this when one of my kids is trying to boss the other around. Sometimes I say it when I've asked say my son to clean up his room and one of my daughters takes it upon herself to make sure he does it.
Sometimes, when I'm at work I'll say "Ms. Blank will be the teacher, you be the student." Here again, someone is trying to "take charge" and boss someone else around.
It is a hard balance for kids. I appreciate when one of my kids or clients wants to help others do the right thing, but there is a good way to do it and a "bossy" way to do it. For example, I ask my son to turn off the tv and pick up his Legos. I then walk out of the room. A few minutes later, I walk back in and find my youngest daughter dragging my son by the arm over to his Legos and yelling at him to clean them up. And, FYI, the tv is still turned on. This is when I say "I'll be the mom, you be the sister." I then proceed to turn off the tv and ask my son to pick up Legos again. I remind him that if he doesn't, I will be picking them up and they will be staying with me.
An example of what my clients in school share goes something like this:
"I was in line to go to lunch and Johnny would not line up. The teacher announced the class would not get to go until everyone was lined up. I told Johnny to hurry up. When he still didn't come, I screamed at him to get in line." My client then received a consequence for screaming.
In both examples, good intentions were involved but executed in the wrong way. In my example, I'm wanting to help my son clean up without me hovering over him. I would have given him the warning about what happens if I clean them up regardless of what my daughter was doing. By her yelling at him, though, she now is breaking the rules. In the classroom, the teacher was hoping Johnny would do the right thing by himself once he realized how it was negatively effected his classmates. By screaming, my client caused a disruption. In either situation, a polite but firm reminder from sister/classmate could have been appropriate.
The question is how to how help the "helper" understand this. This is tough. Especially because sometimes I do ask for help. Sometimes, I'll send one of my kids to remind my other kids something and maybe they do it by yelling and I'm not aware. And I'm sure in the classroom, sometimes it is effective to yell at a classmate in order to get something done and the teacher does not catch them.
I think we as the parent or other adults in charge need to be careful about monitoring how the helper does things. This is so hard though! We can't be everywhere, all the time. Also, we need to show them positive examples. I've yelled at my kids before and then they did what I'm asked. I imagine that is why my kids do it to each other. I am constantly working to improve this in myself and hopefully my kid too.
I'm also trying to watch how often I send my kids to tell the other one to do something. That's really my job, not theirs.
Sometimes it's hard being a mom to young kids. My kids recently had lice and let me tell you, the process of getting rid of them is horrible (or at least it was for us). So sometimes I need a reminder of why having young kids is awesome.
1. They will pretty much do anything if you randomly make it a race. For example, who can get dressed the fastest. Though I discovered, this can't be a daily race or they won't do it;)
2. They love giving hugs and kisses. Sadly, the older they are, they less likely they seem to want to do this so I take every opportunity I can now.
3. They think you are beautiful and will tell you so.
4. They become really excited when you give them anything even if it only cost a $1. Again, something that tends to go away as they age.
5. Watching them do something "scary" for the first time is so rewarding. My five-year-old recently jumped off a diving board and then a high dive. It was amazing to watch him overcome his fear because he really wanted to do it.
6. The awesome giggles I hear when I tickle my kids.
7. The way they love anything I make for them if I somehow connect it to a superhero or Minnie Mouse. For example, I am not artistic at all but if I draw a little picture and add Minnie on it, my daughter treasures it.
8. Having a family movie night and all the kids wanting to snuggle while watching.
9. Seeing them learn new things. My oldest now frequently reads to the family when we read Bible stories. It is so amazing that she can take the lead in that now.
10. They want us around to watch them do activities and our praise for the activity is rewarded with a big smile.
These are just some of the things I love about having kids. What are some of yours?
JENNIFER EULBERG, MA, LPC
Welcome Jennifer, our new blogger!
Jennifer is a counselor at Sandhill who specializes in depression, self-esteem, and grief & loss. Get to know Jennifer as she shares her perspectives on life, contemplates value themes, and offers gentle encouragement.
THANK YOU to Stefanie Pisarkiewicz, LPC for her blog contributions from November 2014 - February 2019!