Managing Hurtful Words Between Siblings
Your child just said to his sister: “You’re stupid and I hate you!” Now what?
By the time a child says something hurtful, he has become dysregulated. Remembering this is key (… same thing is true for adults!)
Now we have a choice: either we ask a child to focus on the *impact* of his dysregulation (“You made your sister sad!”) or we can stop the dysregulated behavior from continuing and then help a child regulate (check the words in this post). I recommend the latter.
Kids do not learn regulation through guilt.
Kids with people-pleasing tendencies may change their behavior accordingly, but not because they’ve learned how to regulate their feelings or impulses – only because attachment fears start to overpower their access to their wants and feelings. This can look like compliance in childhood and then leads to problematic relationship patterns later in life.
Ok, so an alternative: Boundaries. STOP THE BEHAVIOR FROM HAPPENING AGAIN. This is a missing piece in so many families. We have to own our authority. This may look like sending kids to rooms – not out of punishment, but to re-establish safety.
I sometimes say this in my family: “My number one job is to keep everyone safe. In our family we consider emotional safety to be as serious as physical safety. Right now, safety looks like everyone in their rooms. No one is in trouble. I’ll check on both of you. Go now.”
Communicate to your child that he has an important feeling or message under the hurtful language. “Seeing” this is important as it helps your child remember that he is a good kid having a hard time, not a bad kid doing bad things. This switch is critical to change.
I also recommend talking to the child who was the recipient of the hurtful language. I might say, “Your brother was upset and that feeling came out of his body in such big hurtful words. How did you feel when he said that?” or “That probably felt scary, huh? Tell me about that” or “You’re allowed to have feelings when people say hurtful things to you.”
Try This At Home:
The next time you hear hurtful words between your kids, establish your sturdy leadership and show empathy: “It’s ok to be frustrated. I get that. Here’s the thing: I won’t allow hurtful language. I am separating you and your sister so we can all calm our bodies. I have a feeling you’ll find a different way to communicate your important message. Let me know if you need my help.”