Your sweet, angelic child has suddenly said mean things to you. Here’s how to respond when your child says hurtful words.
My five-year-old asked, “When can I get a skateboard?” to which I responded, “When you can ride the scooter well.” My reasoning was: First master the scooter, so you can use a skateboard.
Except my son didn’t take it like that. He sniffled, asking why I would say that. Especially after all the times I’ve congratulated his improvement and for practicing every day.
I felt terrible, knowing he misunderstood what I meant. The damage was done though. None of my reassuring words or comforting reactions were enough to pacify him.
He’s still upset several minutes later, even locking himself in the bathroom. And too upset to calm down, he yelled:
“Go away and don’t ever come back!”
What to do when your child says hurtful words
It was then I realized this was the first time he has hurled hurtful words at me. And despite the shock of hearing my boy—my mama’s boy—say something like that, I knew the reason.
Still, I didn’t want this to be a common response, or have the relationship where retorts are commonplace. So I read effective ways to respond to your child’s hurtful words, and here’s what I learned.
Don’t take it personal.
Hearing your child say hurtful things is hard to stomach, especially when they’re offensive. This isn’t the time to internalize what she notices about you or whether she loves you less. She spoke from charged emotions. Whether with a tinge of honesty or not, don’t focus on what she said but rather on her behavior.
Give your child time and space to calm down.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is to let your child be and leave her alone. She’s too upset to talk and can’t listen. Don’t reason or discipline, either—she can’t process anything you’re saying right now.
Instead, give her the time and space to cool down. Later—whether in a few minutes or even the next day—talk about why she said what she did. Only when she’s calm can she reveal her true feelings and intentions.
Don’t say hurtful things back.
If you’re just as reactive as your child, you might feel tempted to blurt terrible words right back. Don’t. Hold your temper, take a few breaths, walk away.
On so many levels, saying hurtful things back is wrong. You’re modeling the behavior you don’t want your child to do. And with both of you upset, you’ll spiral into chaos instead of calming down and being productive.
Acknowledge their emotions.
As hurtful as it is to hear insults hurled at you, these are still your child’s emotions. Yes, she expressed them poorly, but it’s normal and okay for her to feel frustrated, annoyed, or sad. Don’t chastise her for not feeling happy all the time.
How can you acknowledge her emotions? Should you need to respond to your child right away, say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Once she’s able to listen, you can discuss the emotions she felt. “Seems like you felt hurt earlier because…”
Do you struggle with getting your kids to listen? I’d love to share with you one effective word I’ve found to get kids to listen in this FREE printable handout. Learn about the word, why it works and how to use it (comes with a worksheet, too!).
Apologize for your part.
No parent is perfect, and that’s why we should always apologize to our kids when the need calls for it. Most conflicts aren’t one-sided. Our kids need hear where we went wrong and how we may have contributed to their outburst.
Explain how words can hurt.
Still, even though your child has a right to feel frustrated, she still has to learn to do so in a respectful way.
But instead of pointing out where she went wrong, state it from your point of view: “I feel hurt when you say things like that.”
Your child might get upset, afraid that she has hurt one of the most important people in her life. Admit that you get angry and say nasty things as well, but that we always try to do our best not to hurt other people.
Show your child better ways to express emotions.
You’ve acknowledged her emotions, apologized for your mistakes and pointed out how her words hurt. Next, show your child other ways to express herself. She can walk away, take a few deep breaths, or say, “I’m mad right now.”
Let her know it’s okay to feel frustrated. It’s just better to do so without hurting other people’s feelings.
Praise when you see your child handle frustration well.
Praise your child when you see her choose better alternatives to hurtful words. Acknowledge behavior you want to continue so she knows this is behavior you encourage.
Don’t just praise for “perfect” behavior, but for the actions you value. It’s wrong for your child to push her brother, but praise her for having admitted it.
Reflect on your own actions.
After we had calmed down and discussed the emotions, I turned inward:
What lessons can I learn from this?
It’s so easy to focus on the kids and what we need to teach them, but this is our journey as well, and as I’m sure you’ve realized, we all have lots to learn.
Take a few moments to find the triggers that led your child to feel angry. How is the stress levels in your home? What changes is she going through that might contribute to her frustration? Are your responses aligning with her temperament? Dig deep and ask yourself questions to learn from this experience as well.
Get more tips about communicating with your child:
- It’s Not Too Late: How to Unspoil Your Child
- Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child
- How to Be the “Bad Guy” and Still Parent Effectively
- 7 Techniques to Discipline Children
- Why Forcing Your Child to Say Sorry Isn’t a Good Idea
Has your child said hurtful words to you? How have you responded? Let us know in the comments!
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