Monday, March 11, 2013

Sticks and Stones : Dealing with Verbal Abuse From Your Child

“Sticks and stones may break my bones
But names will never hurt me.”  – Unknown
I’d argue that whoever wrote the popular nursery rhyme didn’t have a four year old who called them names.  Not just names, mind you, but straight to the heart hateful words, like “I hate you,” “I will kill you,” or “You’re an idiot.”

Really?  From a four year old?  What have I done to deserve this?

My husband and I certainly don’t say those things to our son.  He doesn’t watch television, or play video games, nor does he have toy weapons at home.  So, where does it come from?

I guess I could better rationalize this behavior if he were a teenager; although, for me, this is not acceptable at any age and it certainly doesn’t make me look forward to what’s in store for us in the coming years.  So what do you do when your child is being verbally abusive?

As parents, we are often faced with temper tantrums, heavy sighs, feet stomping and doors slamming.  It’s my responsibility to help my son learn to manage and express his feelings: to teach him to self regulate, to know his limits, and to find appropriate ways of letting his feelings out.

I validate, acknowledge, and empathize with him. I want him to feel heard and understood.  To identify what he’s feeling and to create a safe space where he knows he can be himself.   “Mommy can see that you are feeling frustrated.  I bet you’re upset because you weren’t finished playing and now we have to get ready for bed.  I wish we could play a little longer, but if we don’t get to bed, you’ll be cranky in the morning.” 

Sometimes, this dialogue works.  Other times, it will trigger a verbal attack about how much he hates me and wishes me dead.  How is it, that my four year old knows which buttons to push?  I wish I could say it doesn’t bother me, that I am so zen these words just roll off my back; some days I am spiritually fit and the words do roll off my back, but for the most part, they hurt.  They really, really hurt!

Of course, it’s during these times that I begin to reflect on the way that we are raising him. As with everything else, parents are role models to our children. If I am being completely honest, then, I’m not always the best example.  I lose my patience, am sarcastic, and antagonize him at times.  I fight with my husband, have road rage, and have been know to drop the F-bomb under my breath.  I instantly regret my behavior, hope it went unnoticed, and try to hold it together a little better the next time.

Nobody ever stops to ask me, “How did that make you feel?  I can see that my ignoring you makes you frustrated and I’m sorry.”  But I’m the parent and it’s my responsibility to actively and positively communicate my feelings with my own family.  Having a child gives me the opportunity to slow down, to speak from the heart, and, most importantly, to practice safe, emotional communication with not only with my son, but my husband as well.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded, by my four year old, of how much he does hear, take in, and model from us.  We were having one of those mornings.  My husband, in his frustration, asked Braden to just “shut up.”  He immediately apologized and we went on with our morning.  A little while later, Braden told him to “shut up” and I interjected, telling him it’s not okay to talk to people like that.  His response, very matter-of-factly, “But you are my parents and I copy you.  If you say it, then I think it’s okay to say and I am going say it.”  Wow!  Exactly.

So we take a deep breath, realize that nobody is perfect, validate, acknowledge, and empathize with him.  We apologize, ask for forgiveness, and try again.  Together, in time, with practice, we’ll all have a better handle at this.