Sticks and Stones : Dealing with Verbal Abuse From Your Child

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Written by contributor Arianna Carlson of For the Love of Motherhood


“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.


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17 Responses to Sticks and Stones : Dealing with Verbal Abuse From Your Child

  1. Melissa Allen March 11, 2013 at 8:35 am #

    Well said! I appreciate your honesty. It’s a tough job, this parenting tough. It truly takes a village!

  2. Noush March 11, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    Very insightful. Thank you for your candor.

    • Arianna Carlson March 11, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

      Thank you, Noush. This is one of my favorite pieces and probably the hardest to write. 😉

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  3. mitra March 11, 2013 at 10:40 pm #

    This must have been very hard to write. I admire your honesty. You are an amazing writer!

    • Arianna Carlson March 11, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

      Thank you, Mitra. At the time, we were in the midst of it and it was very hard to write, at the same time, therapeutic. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way and we have our sweet boy back! It is largely due to my own attitude adjustment and being more conscious of my parenting. 🙂

  4. Beth March 12, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    I’m a little relieved to read this article. My 4 1/2 year old son recently started saying he hates me and it really caught me off guard – I’ve gone to great lengths to ensure the word ‘hate’ isn’t used in our house. The first time it happened I locked myself in the bathroom and sobbed, which didn’t help the situation. Now I’m able to say, “I know you’re very mad at me right now and I love you no matter what. Let me know when you’re ready to talk.” Sometimes this helps, sometimes not. I’d love to hear what other parents do!

    • Arianna Carlson March 13, 2013 at 12:30 am #

      Beth, thank you for your comment. Like you, I’ve told my son that his words hurt me, but no matter what, I love him. I do follow up with, ‘but I don’t like feeling hurt so I’m going to take some space before we play again.’ I do want him to know that he has my unconditionally love, but at the same time he has to understand that words do have consequences and he can’t just hurt me and expect that I will want to play. I want him to see that I respect myself enough to set safe boundaries for how I will allow someone to treat me. I hope he learns that if he is faced with a bully or abuser, he too will learn to set boundaries. We can love someone, but not like how they treat us. We are all learning.

      I’m happy to say that this ‘phase’ seems to have passed and I have my sweet boy back. I don’t know where he learned those hateful words, but we can’t raise them in a bubble so it’s more important to show him how to treat people and how I want to be treated than try and keep him from being exposed to negative situations.

      Thanks again for sharing.

  5. Kate March 14, 2013 at 8:25 pm #

    I appreciate your candor and honesty. If we’ve raised four year olds most of us have experienced verbal “abuse”. That’s what makes this article so comforting. Not only can we say to ourselves.. Whew iam not alone, but also know this can be remedied. I think it’s important

  6. Kate March 14, 2013 at 8:34 pm #

    To know why it’s happening.. And there can be so many reasons, testing our boundaries, attention, or merely experimenting with new words they heard from the playground school or yes even… Sometimes home. Then I can address the situation with the appropriate level of discipline. It’s a case by case situation.. I agree with you regarding setting setting boundaries we are teaching them to create boundaries for themselves. We are teaching them self love . No one should tolerate verbal abuse.
    I know it’s been really helpful for us to be impeccable with our words.. Not always easy…I sometimes have to leave the room because I can feel an abusive word surfacing…
    Ahh the learning… I just when I thought one phase was over it strangely can resurface later or a new one can appear.. Never a dull moment….wouldn’t trade it for the world.

    • Arianna Carlson March 15, 2013 at 5:49 am #

      Kate, thank you for all of this! It is refreshing to know I’m not alone, because sometimes you just can’t imagine anyone else’s child saying the things I’ve heard from my own child. At the same time, I’m sometimes in disbelief that my child could be so cruel. I’d look at him and think, ‘Seriously? What have you done with my baby? Bring him back!’

      And, as you mentioned, the phase is over and his hateful words are replaced with, ‘Mommy, I love you to infinity’ or teasing one another about who loves the other one more. May this phase last longer than the other. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing.

  7. Leah April 24, 2014 at 10:56 am #

    Thank you for your post.

    It validates that this is normal behaviour, as I was worried as a Mother that my daughter my sweet daughter is heading down the path of becoming a Tyrant.

    My daughter usually becomes like this when she doesn’t get her way. Are there any strategies that can help in a positive way. She is 5 so redirection doesn’t work anymore. She is in JK and I know she has a lot of rules to follow at School. I’m not strict with her and haven’t been good at limit setting, and now it is almost impossible to get her to listen when she gets in these moods. I tried to ignore but then she comes running at me. I have tried holding her and rocking her and then she starts to cry and I keep rocking her to soothe her. This seems to work the best, but just curious if anyone else has some more ideas.

    Thank you.

  8. Zoe January 15, 2017 at 1:14 pm #

    Thank you for writing this. Its so valuable to know that I’m not alone and that as per usual it’s a pretty normal phase that will pass. Appreciated more than you could ever know right now. 💖

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