‘Terd nugget!’ ‘Stupid!’ Those are just two of the lovely synonyms that my children have found for their siblings. Many of the others would not look good in print, or end up causing this page to be at least ‘R’ rated. And some days, every parent can admit that the nanny-nanny-boo-boo and name-calling among siblings becomes irritating enough that you may question why in the world you had children in the first place. Sound familiar?
Of course, parenting experts and psychologists alike agree that at some point name-calling can be much more than a spouting competition of words, and can border on emotional abuse. In fact, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect (ABCAN), in their 1995 report stated: ‘There are tens of thousands of victims overwhelmed by lifelong psychological trauma, thousands of traumatized siblings and family members, who, as adults, continue to bear physical and psychological scars.’ And it’s not too difficult to understand why.
For one thing, younger siblings often look up to their older brothers and sisters. Depending on your child’s personality, any nay saying by older sibling can literally be taken to heart. When certain names and ascertains are stated enough times, the younger siblings are bound to believe it. Every time they make a mistake in life, their mind will reverberate with the harsh words of sibling who called them a ‘loser’ every time they made a mistake. The child then questions and wonders if perhaps, the sibling is right. This can happen of course with older siblings being abused by younger siblings, but that scenario is much, much less common.
Some large-scale studies have indicated that around 53 out of every 100 children are abused either emotionally or physically by a sibling. And here’s the ironic thing, many incidents in the home that often start out as name calling and turn physical, could actually be classified as domestic abuse had they occurred outside the home.
You might be wondering if all of this talk is just a little too soft, the truth is siblings fight. While it’s true that you would be hard pressed to find a family with more than one child that didn’t engage in the verbal banter that accompanies siblings, it is true that sometimes name-calling can go too far.
For one thing, when children are being teased via name-calling about their appearance, or because of a learning difficulty or disability that they have, the child on the receiving end is more apt to take the words to heart. If they are just calling each other broad range insulting words such as dummy, stupid or jerk the child is less apt to suffer from diminished self-esteem. Additionally, since siblings literally know many of the embarrassing details of one another’s lives, it is easy for them to pick up on insults, and well-directed jabs that attack the ‘person’ rather than just serve to be mean. For instance, if one child is a bed wetter, or is dyslexic and the sibling knows it, they may use these areas to be more hurtful with their insults. When this is the case, parents need to MUST step in.
Abusive verbal behavior is defined as any ‘actions or words that serve to tear down the self respect and self confidence’ of another child. Yes, calling a sibling ‘stupid’ could be seen as detrimental, but if the phrase is used as more tongue and cheek then directed specifically at a weakness, the child will not feel personally attacked.
So what can parents do about name calling?
First and foremost, recognize when a disagreement is turning the corner for the worst. You should allow children to work out their differences and even learn to defend them. But when the words exchanged become abusive, or when it is a younger sibling being tormented by an older sibling, you must step in. Be careful not to automatically take the younger child’s side either, because by doing so, without listening to both sides of the story you will actually escalate the sibling rivalry and name-calling.
Teach your children from a young age how to talk about how they feel. Certainly, they are angry when they are engaged in a name calling war. But if you can begin giving them tools to identify why they feel so angry, and have them deal with that they may not need to resort to name calling as a means to ‘winning.’ Additionally, be compassionate about why a child is mad. If one sibling took another siblings I-Pod and deleted content, although not the end of the world, recognize that the child feels their personal space has been violated. Then teach both children the proper way to respond. Also be careful not to justify name calling for any reason, and instead offer ideas for alternative ways to deal with it.
Parents also need to set limits in their home. By all means, verbal warfare MUST be regulated. Make sure that you have words that are off limits, and that your children stay very clear about what they can and cannot say to one another. The ONLY way to enforce this is to provide a consequence if no-no words are used. However, make no mistake about it, your children need room to argue with another. Numerous child development studies have proven that children learn a lot from engagements with their siblings and are often more able to operate successfully in social settings.
Last but certainly not least, talk to your children. Try to move away from the ‘sticks and stones’ mentality. The bottom line is that words, do hurt! Even though name-calling starts out innocently enough for most families, it can become hurtful and even abusive if left unchecked.
According to ABCAN, ‘Many people, who have been tormented by a sibling, can attest to the life-long effects of childhood emotional abuse.’ So even though sibling rivalry among your children and name-calling may be part of the normal familial process, you have to pay attention as a parent and recognize when it has become too much for your children to bear.