Kids’ Bad Words Can Give Parents Good Insights

Stupid is as stupid says

My first-grade daughter has been expanding her vocabulary with bad words. This development began over the summer while she was riding the camp bus with a bunch of older boys. Here’s a list of some of her new favorites:

  • Idiot
  • Dummy (or Dumb)
  • Jerk
  • Poopy
  • Penis
  • Butt

I realize these words could and probably will be a lot worse in the not so distant future, but she’s been making the most of her new knowledge. For example, she’s learned to combine these words to come up with colorful gems like “Idiot Butt” and “Poopy Penis.”

While this newfound language has been somewhat frustrating to deal with, it has also, more importantly, given me some insight into how my daughter thinks and feels about herself.

Hands down, my daughter’s favorite new word is “stupid.” “Stupid” is often aimed at her younger brother, and its use is usually driven by jealousy. She has said, with prodding from me, that she doesn’t like the attention he gets for “being cute” and she doesn’t like “having to share” with him. Despite her frustration being more about his cuteness and about having to share, she chooses to direct her negativity at his mental abilities (e.g. his supposed stupidity) rather than anything physical.

What I’ve come to realize is that there is significance in why “stupid” is her favorite jab.  In fact, a bunch of her favorites have to do with how smart or not smart someone is. By paying attention to the negative words she frequently uses, I’ve been able to gain some insight into the things that she doesn’t like about herself.

Pop psych 101 says that if you’re bothered continually by something that other people are doing, it is probably something that you don’t like about yourself, but can’t face. The person who doesn’t like when other people talk too much is often an over talker. The guy who doesn’t like how serious other parents take their children’s sports is the first one to yell at the ref for a botched call in pee wee soccer. The same theory goes for the words we direct at others in anger or frustration. From this perspective, my daughter’s use of “stupid” is actually a reflection of how she feels about herself, which she confirmed when she admitted that she often feels “stupid at school.” (And I should note that this use of slights and bad words to vent underlying feelings about oneself isn’t specific to six-year olds and happens with children and adults of all ages.)

If you’re not good you’re bad

Sometimes my daughter isn’t the most flexible person. She struggles with letting things go, and has difficulty moving away mentally from perceived wrongs or losses. Much of these troubles stem from her propensity to think about things in very black and white terms. While this thinking isn’t unusual for kids her age, it greatly contributes to how she thinks about herself.

School is important to most kids. It’s a way they can measure themselves against their peers on a daily basis. My daughter, like many kids, invests a lot of energy in doing well at school. I would estimate that like most students, she is probably average in most areas, below average in a few, and a little above average in some. This, however, doesn’t work well with her current all-or-none thinking.

Black and white, all-or-none thinking often makes for critical self analysis when a person is average in most of their abilities – as most of us are. Even above-average skills in certain areas are often turned into negative self feelings because black and white thinking only allows for one person to be “the best”: anything but the best is translated into the worst. So in my daughter’s case, although she is a mostly successful, hard working, well-behaved student, she often thinks of herself as “stupid.”

Knowing is half the battle: next steps to take

OK, so now that I know that my daughter often thinks of herself as “stupid,” what do I do about it?

Tell it like it is: Pointing out negative words, and the underlying meaning behind their use, can be helpful in getting kids to acknowledge the things they don’t like about themselves. This will help them begin facing difficult feelings rather than avoiding them. “I think you’re calling your brother stupid because you’re feeling jealous and you want him to feel stupid like you feel sometimes.” “When people say mean things about other people they really feel that way about themselves.” “You’re brother is not stupid and neither are you.”

Sell the middle: Many of my posts focus on how well or poorly kids are able to cope with loss. In this case, too, my daughter’s black and white thinking is actually a defense against feeling loss. She spends time building herself up as “Best” because she can’t tolerate thinking about herself as “Worst.” The problem is that she often isn’t “Best” (just like the rest of us mere mortals). Focusing on this fact through stories of our own childhood or through books, TV or movies, parents can help create a little space for kids to begin to accept the reality of being average.

Pursue Passions: This is sort of a no brainer in that most parents are looking hard for that one thing that our children love and potentially excel at. But having children find their passion is especially important if you’re actually listening to me and telling them how average they are!

Most activities these days are highly structured and packaged. Think soccer, art class, or gymnastics and the formulaic way our children progress through classes. It’s not that these activities aren’t a path to interests and hobbies.  Sometimes they are (albeit more rarely than we’d think). But it’s often more important to be on the lookout for how kids choose to spend their free time. What are they drawn to?  What are the topics they ask questions about?

Also, it’s easy to dismiss video games, TV shows or internet use as brainless, filler activities, but they can provide some good information on burgeoning interests.  Video games like Minecraft or Terraria are steeped in architecture and design. Other games like Dota, Smash Brothers and even first person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo are high on competition, strategy and teamwork. Finding out why kids are drawn to the shows they watch or the games they play can help parents identify aptitudes or passions that are a bit more hidden than more traditional pursuits like art or sports. Asking about these pursuits also encourages kids to share more of what they like with parents rather than hiding them for fear of disapproval.

Role play the stupid loser: Playing games with our kids can help them to learn to tolerate loss in a safe setting. When I lose I dramatically express the pains of losing with crying, flailing, and a few “I’m so stupids.” My daughter cracks up! She loves the reversal and gets to see the pain of losing played out rather than bottled up. She is then learning to play with the idea of loss, rather than trying to avoid it or being painfully overwhelmed by it every time she thinks about losing.

It's Not a Tantrum, It's a Volcano

My Daughter is Like a Volcano!

Several years ago, I was on vacation in Costa Rica in a town called Arenal, which happens to be located at the base of an active volcano. One night, our guide pointed out a stream of lava flowing from the volcano. I asked about our safety and the guide explained that sudden and violent eruptions like at Mt. St. Helen’s or Mt. Vesuvius happen because a layer of rock covers the volcano and pressure builds up till it erupts. The Arenal volcano, on the other hand,  is safe because it lets out just a little bit of lava at a time, and therefore pressure does not build up.

The volcano is a perfect metaphor for what happens with children as they attempt to manage difficult emotions. Many children, adolescents, and even adults tuck difficult feelings like anxiety, sadness, and loss away, choosing to avoid them rather than confront them head on.

This strategy does not work for long, as these difficult emotions don’t disappear but instead build up over time until they finally erupt in an outpouring of emotion most commonly referred to as a “meltdown” or “tantrum.”  These eruptions can also take the form of panic attacks or physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches.

The Arenal volcano provides the perfect solution. Allow a little out every day. No buildup. No eruption.

My daughter, who is now 6 years old, provides a good example of Mt. St. Helens in action.

Are You Sure You’ve Got the Right Kid?

As a four year old in preschool, my daughter received only positive behavior reports from her teachers.  Problem was, my wife and I couldn’t figure out who exactly they were talking about. Certainly not our daughter. The little girl they were describing followed directions well, worked hard on her schoolwork, didn’t give up, never cried or complained, and was generally easy going.

At home, our daughter was quick to anger, often cried and complained, did not follow directions well and was generally a pain in the butt. I’m being a bit dramatic here, but you get the point. She was certainly affected by things that happened at school. She often told us about a classmate not allowing her to play on the dinosaur or the work in class being too hard. If the reports from her teachers were accurate, she did not allow herself to show or let out any negative emotions at school.  Instead, she saved them all for the comfort and safety of home… Lucky us!

Let It Out!

Back then and now, my daughter would be best served by allowing some level of that frustration (emotional lava) out at school, just like the volcano at Arenal. This would mean working out playground disputes with her peers as they happen and telling her teacher that she is frustrated by the work that day.

However, she is young and at the beginning of her emotional life, and her current strategy in dealing with the myriad of difficult emotions at school is to just tuck them away. I think Freud had it right in some way when he hypothesized that our internal lives are driven by “psychic energy.”  Like energy, the negative emotions my daughter experiences at school do not dissipate over the course of the day.  They are tucked away, building pressure until she can get home and let them all out in the safety of her home.

Working with families in my practice, I often find that the parent or care-giver who is closest to the child receives the brunt of the volcanic explosions.  As parents, it falls on us to handle the burden of our children’s emotions as they are unable to do so themselves.  It is through this process that they will learn how to successfully manage and control how best to handle their feelings in the future.

Managing the Volcano

Often first attempts at managing the volcano deal with a focus on the tantrum and the host of behaviors that go with it such as hitting, spitting, teasing siblings, not following directions, screaming, bad language, and backtalk. Behavior charts, time-outs, or “1,2,3 Magic” are all strategies to address these symptoms. However, if we were to simply focus on the behavior as the problem, we miss a big part of what’s going on.

Not the tantrum, but the inability to deal with difficult emotions as they happen is the issue at heart. The solution is to get our kids to face issues that trouble them rather than tuck them away. Here’s how:

Expect Explosions:  By accepting that emotional outbursts are an important part of growing up and learning to manage emotions, we as parents are better prepared for managing them when they inevitably come.

Remain Calm in the Face of Emotional Lava: When kids explode, they have reached a tipping point where they are no longer able to contain the difficult emotions that have been gathering for days. Bear in mind that all the difficult behavior and sharp words that accompany a melt down are our children’s attempts to give the overwhelming emotions to us. “I don’t want it; you can have it.”

Exploding ourselves gives these overwhelming emotions power and weight. Staying calm sends the message that they are manageable and gives our kids an opportunity to begin handling them on their own.

My wife and I are trying to follow these ideas, but we are nowhere near perfect… we sometimes get angry and erupt. There’s no need to be perfect, provided that you can repair the damage afterward. This means talking with our kids and explaining why we got angry and erupted. It is helpful to also address the reasons why we may have erupted that don’t pertain   to our kids: “I’m not feeling so good today” Or: “I had a really stressful day at work.” Or: “I didn’t sleep well last night.”

Don’t Try to Make it All Better: Younger children are notoriously unreliable reporters and teens are notoriously tight lipped about what’s bothering them. Pushing for more information can often be the very reaction that tips the scales towards eruption; trying to figure out what’s wrong and fixing it may not lead anywhere in the moment. Giving kids space allows them the time to calm down and come to you when they’re ready to talk. This is always more effective than trying to force anything. They want to tell us and they want us to listen rather than tell them what to do.

Create a Narrative: Even if you don’t really know what happened, give a label to the feeling that is presented to you in the meltdown. Usually the way we feel in these moments is the same way our kids feel…out of control, frustrated, angry, etc. Along with the label, try to create a plausible story about what you think may have happened before or what may be going on at the moment.  “You were really sad that your classmate didn’t let you climb on the dinosaur.” Or:  “You are really angry and frustrated that I didn’t let you go to the mall alone.”

My wife and I have been trying to practice what I preach in my professional life and I’m happy to say that my daughter is starting to get it. While she still has difficult moments, she is also much more prone to using words to express her feelings rather than exploding. Knowing that we’re on the right track has also helped my wife and I to relax more during eruptions. What a relief that this stuff actually works!

Holiday thoughts: Why the diaper bag is ruining our children

A few weeks ago I was at the park with my two-year-old son.  After about fifteen minutes of play, he came over to me and demanded, “Bar!”. What he was asking for was a Trader Joe’s cereal bar. For the parent who doesn’t know about these, they’re like an oversized Fig Newton filled with your choice of Apple, Blueberry, Strawberry, and now Cranberry, just in time for the holidays!

On most occasions (up until now), I’ve thought it cute or even marveled at his use of language. But this time, there was something about his tone that didn’t sit well with me. His tone was one of privilege, like a king demanding his wine or a prince his pony.  He expected that I’d give him that bar then and there.

What really gave me pause wasn’t just his expectation or his attitude. It was the idea that perhaps always having the bar available for him might send the wrong message and do him a disservice developmentally.  As we move into the holiday season, it’s a question that weighs on me (and most other parents I know) even more heavily then usual: should we be giving our kids everything they want, when they want it?

Need or want?

My son demanding instant gratification is not the problem. Doing so is his right as a two-year old. The problem is that I had not one but two fruit bars in the pocket of the diaper bag, ready and waiting for him should the “need” arise.

Need is not the right word here, since he certainly wouldn’t starve during playtime at the park. Does he really need anything for a 45-60 minute trip to the playground?

When I got home I took an inventory of the contents of the bag for this short trip to the park (a five minute walk from our house):

3 diapers
2 picture books
1 box of crayons
1 container of wipes (anti-bacterial)
1 container of wipes (sensitive skin)
1 bag of Annie’s cheddar bunnies
1 bag of grapes
1 sippy cup of water
2 TJ’s fruit bars (blueberry and strawberry)
2 bottles of hand sanitizer (pocket size)
3 matchbox cars
2 packages of squeeze apple sauce
To be fair, several items in the bag stay because they’re actually essential. In my opinion, the diapers, wipes, and one form of hand sanitizer fall into the “need” category. The rest are “wants” and I use them to pacify my son when he gets distressed.

Here’s a typical scene.  My son sees another boy who rides up to the playground and parks his scooter.  The boy walks away, and my son wants to take the scooter for a ride. I stop him from taking the scooter, but he begins to cry.  My attempts to redirect him to the swings or the slide don’t work.  I reach into the magic diaper bag to grab a strawberry fruit bar.  Problem solved!

His comfort or mine?

The playground example raises the question — who is the fruit bar really for?  Yes, my son is much happier while eating the bar than he was just moments before when he didn’t get his way.  Most parents, myself included, would admit that parenting is just easier when we give our young kids what they want, when they want it.

Television and video games are used in the same way.  The kids are driving me nuts, I say the magic word “show,” and I’ve just bought myself at least a half hour’s worth of peace. This peace and the peace I carry around in the diaper bag comes at a cost, though, which only gets more expensive as my son grows.

Many of the diaper bag’s contents offer instant gratification.  The more I reach into the bag to pull out what my son wants at that moment, the more I risk that he won’t be able to calm himself down when he inevitably doesn’t get what he wants.

You can’t always get what you want

I mentioned my diaper bag metaphor to a friend and fellow psychologist who has two kids (ten and five).  In speaking about her older son she said, “There are hurts he’s dealing with now that can’t be cured by a diaper bag.” My friend was lamenting the simpler days when the cure for her kids’ tears was as easy as reaching into the bag and pulling out a fruit bar.  Her take was that there’s no point in bursting their bubble before we have to.  While part of me understands the sentiment, another part of me knows it’s not so simple. We often give our kids what they want because we can; but just because we can, does that mean we should?

How often do you hear parents say that they want to give their kids all the things they never had as a kid? The parents I hear this from are often productive and accomplished people.  I think one of the big reasons they are as successful as they are is because they didn’t get everything they wanted.

The problem is that aside from my wife and myself (and doting grandparents) no one else is going to try to give my son exactly what he wants.  In reality, disappointment looms around every corner.  And the more I reach into that diaper bag, the more he’ll be unprepared emotionally to handle the inevitable losses he’ll suffer when he doesn’t get the things he wants.  He’ll also be unprepared for figuring out strategies to get what he wants through other creative means or by finding satisfaction in alternatives (a Plan B).

There’s been a lot of research and talk recently on the importance of having traits like grit and tenacity in order to tackle the increasing demands that our education system places on students.

While grit may be a proven recipe for success, many of our kids just aren’t learning the skills that foster these traits, in life and at school.

It’s the same at two as it is at fifteen

As much as this post seems to be about how to parent young children, I’m actually thinking more of the teenage boys I work with.  A majority of the kids I see are struggling with problems related to doing their school work.

Most of these boys are described by their parents as “naturally smart,” but “unmotivated” or “lazy” when it comes to doing homework and studying for tests.  Also, many of these boys have gone through a full battery of psycho-educational testing with few if any answers as to why they aren’t engaging in school as their capabilities would suggest.

Many have carried the diagnosis of ADD or ADHD for years; however, their parents have become frustrated with the diagnoses as their kids excel at the things they enjoy doing, like playing video games or spending hours chatting online with friends.  Conversations with these boys and their parents often leads me to the same conclusion:

These boys aren’t able to calm themselves and delay their gratification long enough to sit down and do their work.

I see the schoolwork struggle in the same light as I see my son’s struggle.  My son is feeling a sense of loss because he’s not getting to ride the scooter he covets on the playground.  When I take out the fruit bar to redirect him, I’m providing him a diversion from experiencing pain and loss.  By avoiding the pain, he misses out on the opportunity to begin to learn how to soothe himself.  This is not unlike the teenage boy who, when faced with a tough homework assignment, decides to divert his attention with YouTube or his Xbox rather than soothe his growing anxieties about the work he has to do.

So…deny and let them cry?

It may seem like I’m saying just don’t give them what they want and let them cry it out.  That is sort of true.  But with some important caveats.

Give them what they want…sometimes: As with most things that have to do with indulgence, the key is moderation. Often we give into our child’s demands because it’s just easier for us then having to deal with a tantrum.

There is no reason to completely stop giving in, but perhaps pick and choose times to stand your ground, and be sure to do it when you are feeling up to the task of weathering the storm. By picking and choosing our battles according to our own stamina, we can put ourselves in a much better position to help our kids work through the tough feelings they will undoubtedly experience.  Doing this also allows us to be a bit more mindful of the times when we do give in and the times we don’t, so that over time perhaps the split is more 50-50 then 80-20.

Supportive tears: Allowing our kids to simply cry it out may not produce well-adjusted children. Narration and validation of their feelings is key.

By narration I mean providing my son with a storyline or narrative about why he’s feeling what he’s feeling. This can help him recognize and identify these feelings as he grows. I can say to him “you’re really upset right now because you wanted to use that scooter and Daddy did not let you.”

Validating his feelings will allow him to identify and accept the feelings he’s having rather than trying to simply get rid of them.  For example, “you’re really angry at Daddy for not letting you ride that boy’s scooter” and “you’re really sad because it would be so fun to ride it.”  An acceptance of sadness and anger can help kids be more willing to face these emotions later rather than working hard to avoid them.

These techniques are especially important for young children like my two-year old, but kids of all ages can benefit from them.  And during the lead up to the holidays, these strategies are more important then ever, since the list of our kids “wants” undoubtedly outweighs their lists of “needs.”

What was in your mom’s diaper bag?

A PS here: I asked my mom what she would take with her on day trips to the park or other excursions. She said, “Oh, I took a bottle or drink and diapers, but I didn’t have that big bag that you lug around!”