Words Can and Do Hurt: Tips to Handle Name-Calling

Words Can and Do Hurt: Tips for Handling Name-Calling

Karen Klein

By now, many of us are aware of the school bus monitor who was teased to tears by boys who posted the video on YouTube. Karen Klein, 68, has received support worldwide, and more than $650,000 has been donated to a fund set up to send her on a vacation and help her retire.

The boys repeatedly referred to her as fat and a troll and cursed at her during the 10-minute video. The merciless teasing caused outrage. It was a sad reminder of how words can and do hurt.

Often the name-calling starts young and starts at home among siblings. With summer break upon us, it’s likely moms across America will have to step in and referee. How can parents diffuse the tension between siblings who name-call?  And what distinguishes harmless, name-calling from full-fledged bullying?

“Name calling is of course bad, but I think it tends to do more harm as the child gets older because they are vulnerable in their adolescent years,” shared Adrian Loud, a 40-year-old father of two who lives in Atlanta. “As a parent, you may not know what to do. You don’t want to blow something insignificant out of proportion. But you don’t want your child to feel emotional pain either, especially if the name calling is a recurring problem.”

One mother did reach out to her son’s school teachers about the name-calling and bullying. The boy endured being called names and teased about his dead father. Lizbeth Babilonia transferred her son, Joel Morales, to a different school, sought a protective order against one of the kids bullying her son. The boy hanged himself on May 29th. Today outside an East Harlem New York school,  a make-shift shrine of flowers, candles, and hand-written notes remains for a young boy who had to bear the brunt of verbal insults.

“A child who endures name-calling or bullying can exist in two different contexts—an inner-world of sorts, where they feel safe,” explains Nicholaus Strouse, who serves as the Director of the Westport Family Counseling Center in Fairfield County, Connecticut. “And while a person can still function with negative words, the human spirit erodes, and you have a person dealing with emotional pain.”

Read Related: Lizzie Velasquez Rises Above Bullying

Words Can and Do Hurt: Tips for Handling Name-CallingTECHNIQUES TO HANDLE NAME-CALLING
Israel “Izzy” Kalman is a school psychologist and creator of Bullies 2 Buddies, a program which helps children learn to solve their own problems. “They need to become empowered and learn how to handle mean people and name-calling. When a sibling or person begins to say things like: ‘You’re an idiot or ‘Hey stupid!’—give it right back to them—“You know, you’re right, I do stupid things every day… I’m human.’ You have to teach children how to get along with mean people.  They need to be equipped with the tools to handle name-calling.”

Kalman believes that children who are taught how to diffuse an insult become resilient to negative words and insults. He suggests offering a quick come-back, “Hey, you have a point, I can be quite idiotic at times,” to a sibling or the person hurling the insult. Youth are taught that it’s completely up to them on how they will handle the comments.

Kalman says that a child or adult should respond calmly to the verbal insulter.  “The name-caller enjoys when you’re upset: “You’re an idiot!  You’re stupid!” a sibling begins.  “No, I’m not!  Stop it!  I’m telling, Mom!” replies the whining brother or sister. Kalman explains that “when the victim decides to respond calmly, he or she is no longer a victim, but a victor, diffusing the negative insult.” As an example, Kalman says, a response to “Hey there, stupid loser,” would be “Oh, is that what you’re calling me today. Be my guest, call me what you want.” The child would then calmly walk away.

Strouse disagrees. “I don’t think the name-caller will get bored if the victim agrees with his ‘Idiot, stupid, or loser’ statements. If anything, the person being called those names is going to run into public humiliation. It would be ideal if an adolescent can fire back with a funny comment to the ‘insulter,’ but that notion is really for the pop-psychology culture,” he says. “Can a child really reply with a witty comeback that quickly…especially an elementary or middle-school child?  I don’t think so; human relationships are much more complex.”

Our bodies react physically to verbal insults, regardless of our age, according to Strouse and as evidenced by Klein’s reaction in the video. “How the brain processes an insult or a critical remark is phenomenal,” Strouse says. “There is pupil dilation, the body temperature rises, the volume of the voice rises if we decide to reply to the name-caller—and this all happens in ‘rapid-time’—so it’s not going to be that easy for a youngster to combat a mean word with a wry come-back.”

Words Can and Do Hurt: Tips for Handling Name-CallingWHAT DRIVES NAME CALLING OR INSULTS?
Children or adults who ‘name-call’ do it for many reasons: It is a pattern that’s learned from older siblings or parents.

Consider the insecure mother who lives under a husband’s critical shadow. If their child is a witness to parents who insult each other, it’s only a matter of time before they will have children who follow in their footsteps.

“It’s alluring…like an aphrodisiac of power and control over the victim,” says Strouse. “And we have to remember that a child who partakes in ‘bullying’ behavior has learned it from someone in their own life.”

One 12-year-old shared that she feels she has to respond in kind when called names or insulted by siblings. “I get angry that she’s calling me ‘annoying’. That’s why I answer back. I have to protect myself because I’m the youngest.”

Jennifer Parsons, a married mother of two—in the 5th and 7th grades—in Fairfield, Connecticut, states: “They don’t call each other names. Since they were small, I always emphasized how important it was and still is to treat one another with respect. If they didn’t treat their family members’ right they are not allowed to have friends over and have a party. I see this as a dose of ‘prevention.’ Why is it so easy to treat a family member wrong, but be nice with friends?  I make sure that they choose to be helpful in our home, not harmful.”

Mike Lauterborn, a single father of teen-aged boys, says: “I remind my boys that they are fortunate to have each other.  If they continue to bicker or name-call, I take away privileges.” says

Our personal experiences and cultural backgrounds impact our parenting styles.  For some parents, they may want to carry-on what their own parents modeled when they were children.  Yet others may choose to diffuse name-calling in an entirely different manner.

“I hated hearing my mother yell at me over something that I hadn’t even started!  It was my sister who acted awful, but I had to get punished on account of her behavior,” says Sara Perez, a Milford, Connecticut mom. “As a mother of two girls, I choose to have my kids reflect on the harmful word used. We actually sit down and share why a certain name or action hurt. We forgive and move on, and try to be the better for it.”