Janine Phillips | YWCA MV Support Group Coordinator
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.”
How many of us memorized that singsong when we were children, using it as a shield against bullies? As a result, we grew up pretending that harmful words levelled at us are the norm, something we learn to tolerate. Or maybe we started using those words ourselves, to prove we are strong. Maybe we forced ourselves to believe there is nothing wrong with those words to deny being hurt by them.
When we normalize abusive language around young children, they learn that it’s okay to speak to others that way. Then words become a tool to use if they are angry, or don’t like someone, or are feeling emotional. They may use this language to feel strong, in control, or to defend themselves.
Phrases we might casually toss out at our children after a long day of working could include, “Shut up!” “Just go inside!” “Don’t bother me right now.” “Quit nagging me!” “Leave me alone.” “Why are you so annoying?” “Just give me a break!”
Words we might use to show dissatisfaction with children could range from words most people think are harmless. Words like “stupid, jerk, lazy, bad, worthless, loser, idiot, fat, dumb,” to foul language that isn’t printable in this column often gets tossed at young children like hand grenades on a battlefield. At first, they don’t know what hit them. But then they incorporate it into their own arsenals, using these words to retaliate rather than resolve as they grow older.
There may not be physical abuse involved. This language and type of parenting may have been learned by the parents who were talked to in a similar manner when they were growing up (generational abuse) and therefore normalized because, “My parents did it and I turned out okay, right?”
Wrong. Just because we survived childhood trauma, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to pass that trauma onto our children.
It’s time to take an honest look at the vocabulary we normalize and pluck these words from our lives like we’d pull weeds from a garden.
Here are some phrases we should rethink when talking to children.
Shut Up: This is a disrespectful phrase that has been so normalized we as a society don’t even realize the harm it causes.
Sometimes being told to shut up by a parent, someone you look up to, or supervisor can feel like a slap in the face. Imagine how a two- or three-year-old feels when the parent they idolize and adore tells them to shut up.
How is it translated? Shut up can imply that a person’s thoughts or words are not worthy of listening to, or that they don’t matter. It can also take away a person’s personal power.
How does being told to ‘shut up’ make you feel? If you shrug it off and believe it doesn’t bother you, think again. Think back to when you were a child and rediscover how it felt when you were first told to shut up. It’s probably uncomfortable at best.
“You’re just like your [Father/Mother/Brother/Sister],” is often used to draw parallels between a child’s behavior and that similar behavior of an offending family member. It rarely changes the behavior. Instead, it invalidates the child, especially if the parents are split up or the siblings have gotten into so much trouble they no longer live with the family. It redefines (and not in a good way) how they view themselves.
“I hate you.” “I wish you were dead.” “Drop dead.” “No one will ever love you.” “I wish you’d never been born.”
People actually say these statements to their children. And it’s time to stop.
The abuse we take as children defines the rest of our lives. We will either grow up continuing to take that abuse, and believe that we are worthless, or we will become the abuser.
Is that the life you want to give your children?
Maybe it’s time to put down the sticks and stones and start weeding the garden of your vocabulary so that moving forward you provide a loving, safe environment where your family can grow together in harmony and flourish.
YWCA MV is Here for You
In addition to all of this, know that help is only a phone call away. YWCA Mohawk Valley is available 24/7/365 through our hotlines and confidential advocate chat. If you need someone to talk with, need help in getting safe, or any of our domestic violence crisis services, call our hotlines. In Oneida County, call or text 315.797.7740. In Herkimer County, for our sexual violence and child advocacy services, call 315.866.4120.
If you are experiencing a life-threatening domestic violence emergency, always remember to call 911 first.