This week’s question is from Shante,
“My 7-year-old son stomps, screams, yells and constantly says, ‘I hate you mom, you’re so mean.’ I tell him to use other words to express what about me is mean. Should I tell him to go to his room? How do I get him to stop doing this all the time, even when he’s slightly upset or frustrated? I also have a 3-year-old, and I don’t like that she’s learning and watching her brother respond to me and yell at me that way, because now she’s calling me mean and screaming and yelling. I’m feeling lost, please help.”
In this episode, I will address what is really going on when an upset child becomes verbally hostile and says really hurtful things. We will discuss specific strategies, things to say, ways to get through these moments, and then some things to implement in the long term.
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Why kids say hurtful things when upset
- Keep in mind, it is not about you, rather they are struggling to manage themselves in that moment resulting in saying untrue and hurtful statements
- It is common for kids, regardless of age and neurodevelopmental disorders, to struggle with knowing how to appropriately respond and deal with uncomfortable feelings
- When big emotions become unmanageable/flooded with uncomfortable feelings that they don’t know what to do with, their stress response essentially shuts down the rational thinking brain, (i.e. the nervous system is dysregulated), and sends a child into the reactive brain, or commonly known as “fight, flight or freeze”. In this case, “fight” with hostile word vomit
Trying to control what they can and cannot say in the moment isn’t helpful
- As hard as it is to hear, parents cannot control what comes out of a child’s mouth
- Telling them they cannot say X, Y, or Z is a losing battle and now engaging in a power struggle that only escalates the emotional situation
- During their hostile “verbal barrage”, do your best to ignore the actual (hurtful) words and instead tune into the feelings that are underneath the words
- Focus on the real issue, which is helping them understand what is really going on and how you can support them so they can effectively process the emotions
Parenting strategies and using coregulation
- Modeling a calm, regulated nervous system is key to helping kids be able to settle in the moment, this is called coregulation. This may look like deep breathing, counting your breath, or being quiet and being present.
- During their outburst, calmly and quietly reflect back to your child what you think is happening or going on. Refrain from responding to their hostile talk.
- If the outburst is completely out of the blue, then acknowledge their frustration and assure them you don’t want them feeling that way
- Top tip: the quieter and calmer you get, the escalating child will be forced to also be quiet to hear you. This supports getting their nervous system to regulate
- Sometimes being quiet and letting the child verbally let it all out before interjecting can help settle them quicker
- In the moment, it is important to not “send them away” but rather stay with them or near them until they calm down, this promotes trust and shows them that you are willing to help support them through uncomfortable feelings
There are situations when you should leave a child alone
- Some kids just need a little time to themselves, especially if they have sensory processing issues
- Remember, parents may need this time too, and that is more than okay!
- Articulate that they or you just need some time to manage these big feelings and that you will be back to work through it together
Long-term behavior modification tools
- Remember, teaching strategies, calming tools, and reminding them of things they know how to do to manage their feelings, when they are in the moment of distress and escalation is not going to be effective
- Teach strategies and tools for ways that they can calm themselves before a blow up occurs, such as breathing strategies,mindfulness strategies, doing something like squeezing a stress ball, blowing bubbles, etc.
- There are many other specific tools and great information in my previous podcasts, blog, and social media channels as well as other sources on the internet
- This takes frequent, often daily, practice outside of the dysregulated emotional situations, so be patient and it will pay off for both you and your children
Listener’s question … 00:01:00
Addressing hostile verbal behavior … 00:01:50
Controlling speech doesn’t help … 00:07:46
Coregulation in the moment … 00:10:30
When to leave the child alone … 00:18:49
Long-term behavior modification tools …00:21:00
Episode Wrap up … 00:24:00
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, I am answering a question from one of you. I get many questions each week, and this is a great way to provide answers that many of you might find helpful. If you have a question you’d like me to consider answering on a future episode, email it to email@example.com and you just might hear it on an upcoming show.
Now, onto today’s question, which comes to us from Shante, and she writes: “My 7-yearold son stomps, screams, yells and constantly says, ‘I hate you mom, you’re so mean.’ I tell him to use other words to express what about me is mean. Should I tell him to go to his room? How do I get him to stop doing this all the time, even when he’s slightly upset or frustrated? I also have a 3-year-old, and I don’t like that she’s learning and watching her brother respond to me and yell at me that way, because now she’s calling me mean and screaming and yelling. I’m feeling lost, please help.”
Well, Shante, great question. Something that lots of parents deal with and hopefully I’ll have some good ideas for you today. Let’s start with the big picture. So what’s really going on here? When a kid is reacting verbally in what I would call hostile ways like this: Screaming at you, yelling “I hate you/you’re the worst mom/you’re so mean!”, all of those kinds of things. That triggers a lot in us that can make it challenging for us as the parent to respond sometimes in a productive way to that. But what’s really going on there? Does he really think you’re mean? Is this really even about you? Well, actually it’s not. So in the big picture, what we want to step back and realize here is that when a kid is reacting that way, they’re struggling to handle a flood of uncomfortable feelings in that moment. Now we’ve talked about uncomfortable feelings in various ways on the show, through lots of Q&A episodes previously, but uncomfortable feelings are things like embarrassment, hurt, disappointment, frustration, anger, sadness. Any of those kinds of things, those are uncomfortable feelings for us. And when kids have this surge of one or more uncomfortable feelings, it can sometimes be really challenging for them to know what to do with that: How to sit with that feeling, how to keep themselves calm, how to communicate or respond in ways that actually get their needs met appropriately. This is the case for lots of kids, whether they have a diagnosed challenge or not, but particularly for those of you who have kids who maybe have a neurodevelopmental disorder, maybe some type of mental health challenge, or a communication kind of challenge. This can be particularly difficult. Kids, even at older ages, may struggle to really know how to respond and deal with uncomfortable feelings that come up. So what happens to kids when they have these uncomfortable feelings? You as mom have said “No, you can’t have another cookie”, or “It’s time to be done with the TV right now”, or whatever it might be, and suddenly, your kid is screaming at you, “You’re the worst mom ever! You’re so mean!’”, and being really verbally aggressive towards you. What’s going on there? Well, they’ve been flooded by these uncomfortable feelings, and they don’t know what to do with those. So what’s happening in the brain is they’re sort of going into this emotional center of their brain where their rational thinking is not operating very well. So sometimes you might call this fight or flight, or even fight, flight or freeze is another way to think about that, as a kid is really escalating. And these feelings are building up and they’re really frustrated, they’re really distressed, they’re really angry, disappointed, whatever it might be. And as that emotion builds, and they struggling to process and handle that, the thinking, more rational, logical reasonable part of their brain in that frontal lobe of their brain is starting to shut down, and that emotional, reactive center of their brain is taking over, which is why when a kiddo is really distressed and sort of in the heat of the moment, we might say, trying to rationalize with them, talk to them, reason with them, get them to do something different — that’s not going to work. Their thinking, logical, reasonable part of their brain is offline at that point. So when a child is really dysregulated like this and they’re really worked up and they’re screaming all of these things, this is letting us know they’ve kind of gone over the edge with this. Their nervous system has gotten really dysregulated, meaning they can’t really efficiently and effectively process what’s happening and respond appropriately, and now they’re just in this fight or flight kind of emotional center of their brain.
The reason why it’s really important to recognize that, not only does it help us know how to respond, but it’s important to recognize that because it helps us to not take the things they’re saying at face value. When your child is flooded with these uncomfortable feelings and is lashing out verbally, they don’t mean what they say. They don’t really hate you. They don’t think you’re the worst mom in the world. They don’t think you’re horrible and mean. These are things that are coming out without the sort of filter of that frontal lobe or that rational, logical part of their brain. So that helps us as parents to go “Oh. Wait a minute. I have to take a step back here. My child doesn’t really feel this way, this is just their knee-jerk, reactive, emotion-fueled response.” And that helps us to stay in a more calm, regulated state ourselves, because that’s really critical for us to handle these kinds of things appropriately. We have to keep our nervous system regulated, we have to keep ourselves calm because if our child is lashing out verbally, being really verbally hostile, and we jump into the mix, and start telling them “You can’t talk to me that way! I can’t believe you’re saying that! I do all these things for you!”, or “I’m not really mean”, or “You need to apologize!” Whoa, now they’re spinning, dysregulated and escalating, and we are dysregulated and escalating right along with them. And we know what happens then: Nothing good for either of us. So understanding that they don’t really mean what they’re saying, and that this sort of verbal vomit that’s coming out of their mouths is just an indication of how out of sorts and dysregulated their nervous system, their ability to process and manage is in that moment. And that helps us not to take it personally. So that’s one of the things in the big picture that I think is important to understand.
The second thing in the big picture that I think is important for us to realize is no matter how badly we might want to, we cannot control what comes out of a child’s mouth. That is a hard one sometimes to let sink in. We may want our child to say or not say certain things. But the reality is we actually have no control over what they say. So telling a child in this situation, “You can’t say that to me!”, or “Don’t say that again!”, or “You’re not allowed to say that!” Well, that’s a real losing battle, and we’ve now engaged in a power struggle that we absolutely can’t win. So the focus in these situations needs to not be on trying to control what the child is saying. We need to focus on what we can control, which is our own words, our presence and our behavior. We can control what we do and don’t respond to, and we need to avoid getting into these arguments and power struggles over what they’re saying, for a couple of reasons: One is it just continues to pour fuel on the fire. We dig in, they dig in, now we’re locked into this battle that none of us are going to win. It’s not going to end well. It also really distracts from whatever the real issue is that’s going on. The child is having a feeling that they don’t know how to handle. They’re feeling things that are distressing to them. They need support around that. If we get locked into a power struggle and a battle over the words coming out of their mouth, that is distracting both of us from the real issue at hand, which is helping them understand what’s really going on for them, helping them understand the emotions going on, and helping them deal with that. So we really want to avoid, in these kinds of situations, telling him “You’re hurting my feelings!”, or “Look at what you’re doing, your sister is now saying things!”, or “You’re being so mean!”, that is just like gasoline on that fire. So what I really want to encourage all of you to do is to ignore the actual words that are coming out of your child’s mouth when it’s these kinds of things. We shouldn’t ignore all words that come out of a kid’s mouth, but when it’s sort of this verbal barrage, they’re just sort of out of control and yelling and saying these things, we want to ignore the words themselves, but tune in and be really responsive to the feelings underneath those words. That’s going to be key. I’ll give you some strategies around that, but that’s really going to be key here as we work through this. So, key to keep yourself calm and out of this power struggle, keeping in mind, this is not about you. Nothing he is saying is reflective of how he really feels. This has nothing to do with you. This is about him struggling in that moment to manage himself. So those are the big picture things.
Now let’s dive into some specific strategies: Strategy number one is for you to focus on keeping yourself calm, doing what you need to do to keep your nervous system regulated to avoid letting your frontal lobe check out, and going into that reactive, emotional kind of mode. So whether that’s takings some deep breaths yourself, giving yourself some reminders of “Okay, I can do this.”, or “I’m a great mom, I’m doing the best I can, I can handle this”, whatever it needs to be, focus on keeping your nervous system regulated and your emotions and behavioral reactions in check. Then I want to encourage you to calmly and quietly reflect back to your child what you think is happening or going on. Usually, we have some kind of idea. It might be something like “You’re really mad that I said play time is done”, or “I can see that you are so frustrated that you couldn’t make that game work the way you wanted it to”, or “I know you’re really disappointed that I said you can’t go back outside after dinner.” So we are calmly, quietly, firmly reflecting back what we really think is happening there, because remember: It’s not about you being mean, it’s not about you being the worst mom. This is about your child having a feeling and an emotional experience that they need support to process through and to navigate. So you’re reflecting back what you think is going on. Try to put some words to it. Now, if you don’t have any idea, and sometimes that’s the case, really. “Whoa, I don’t know what’s going on here!” Just acknowledge that they’re feeling really upset about something. “Boy, I can see you are really upset/you are really mad/you seem really embarrassed”, or whatever it might be. Let them know that you recognize that’s uncomfortable and that they don’t want to be feeling that way. “Ugh, I can see you are so upset, and I know that does not feel good, and I know that you don’t want to be feeling this way.” So if you don’t know specifically what might be happening, going on to trigger it, just that general acknowledgement is good.
Another tip here is that as a child is escalating, if they’re getting really loud and yelling and saying all these things in a really loud voice, the tip is for you to get quieter and calmer the louder the child gets. So they’re escalating and getting loud, and you are lowering your voice and staying calm and steady and quiet. That does a couple of things: Number one, it prevents you from jumping into the fray and into this escalation cycle and raising your voice to be heard because that’s often something that happens, right? Kids getting louder, then we feel like we need to get louder so that they hear us over their loudness, and suddenly we are both yelling and being really loud. That’s not helpful. It doesn’t allow the child’s nervous system to get calm or steady or kind of settle down. So, we want to get quiet so that we’re not escalating the noise and the overwhelm of the situation. Also, this really interesting thing happens with kids across the board. It doesn’t have to be even in a distressing situation like this: The quieter we get, the more they have to quiet and sort of calm and really tune into what we’re saying and doing. That was something that I used a lot when I was a classroom teacher, I used a lot in my own parenting, and certainly at the clinic. So that’s just a tip, is for you to get quieter. Then what you want to do next is stay with your child until their nervous system is able to settle down and their logical brain comes back in control. Now, that can take anywhere from a few moments to quite a little bit, depending on the child, depending on their history, depending on their ability to sort of re-regulate once they get distressed. But we want to avoid this idea of, “You’re saying horrible mean things, go away.” or “Go somewhere by yourself until you can talk nicely to me.” A kid may go away. You may put them in their room, you may send them away, whatever, and they may eventually quiet down and stop. But it’s not teaching them anything, and it’s not helping them to navigate these situations to learn how to manage these uncomfortable feelings, and ultimately shows them that you can’t or won’t manage these tough moments with them, which can erode trust in the relationship and is just not ideal for a number of reasons. So, it’s important in staying with a child that we’re keeping ourselves really calm, that we’re not responding to this hostile talk. That we continue to avoid getting into this cycle of responding to the actual words and things they’re saying, and instead we continue to come back to what we think the underlying feelings are. That they’re feeling overwhelmed, that they’re feeling distressed by these big emotions. Whatever we think is going on, we’re continuing to keep ourselves in this posture of responding to the underlying feelings and the overwhelm that they’re having, and not responding to the actual words that are coming out of their mouth. Sometimes it can be a good strategy to stay totally quiet when a kid is just verbally going on and on and on and not able to stop themselves, can’t settle quickly. Just let them get it all out, and you stay really calm and really quiet and just don’t even try to verbally engage with them at all. For some kids, that’s a really helpful strategy. And again, you’re practicing your own nervous system regulating strategies during this time. Your own mantras, your own calming tools, your own deep breathing, distracting yourself with a song in your mind, thinking about the things that you’re going to do that day, putting your hand on your heart and counting your heartbeats or your breath. Whatever it is that you’re doing, you’re modeling a calm, regulated nervous system then in those situations, which is key to helping kids be able to settle. That’s called that coregulation, when we’re able to keep ourselves in a more calm, regulated state, it helps them then to match that regulated state in us, and can help them to calm and get back in their rational brain and their more regulated body more quickly. What you’re doing there is showing them that you can handle these big feelings, even when they can’t, even when at their worst, even when they’re saying horrible, horrible things. And there are kids that say horrible, horrible things, especially as they get older, there can be some really awful things that come out of kids mouths, and they need to know that we are able, in our minds, to separate the things that are coming out of their mouths from what’s really going on and how they really feel. It shows them that we’re able to be there for them in those tough moments. That we’ve got this, even though they don’t. That we are in control and can manage this and that we’re going to get through this. When we send them away to deal with it on their own, or we say, “You’re hurting my feelings, you’re saying terrible things, get away from me”, we’re not able to help them develop any of the skills or the regulatory capabilities to really understand or manage these things on their own.
Now there are times where it might work best for a child to be alone for a little bit, that’s okay. Some of you may have a child, particularly if they have maybe a lot of sensory processing issues and overwhelm or just a kid who really does better initially if they have a little bit of time to themselves, that’s fine. You can stay nearby or in the area, maybe on the other side of the door and say “I’m right here.” If you need to take a break, that is legitimate and okay. Preface that by saying, “Whoa, I need a minute, I’m kind of having a hard time managing my own feelings right now. I’m just going to step away for a minute, I’m going to get myself together and I’m going to come back.” Maybe you go in the bathroom, whatever you need to do, take a minute for yourself, and then you come back and work with them through it. So, there can be times where you may need to take a break or they may need to have a little bit of time to themselves. But the way that we approach that and frame that is really critical. So those are some of the specific strategies and tools then for getting through these kind of tough moments where a lot of verbally hostile things are being said.
Now, in an ongoing kind of way, an ongoing strategy, there are some things, obviously, that you want to teach and some tools to use here. Because it sounds in this case, what Shante is describing is that this is an ongoing issue. For some kids, this is a real ongoing problem. Every time they have the slightest bit of frustration or distress. So this is going on lots of times during the day, and it can escalate and become more of a habitual way of them managing uncomfortable feelings as they get older. So if it’s an ongoing issue and not just a once in a while thing, you want to employ some longer term strategies as well, some of those proactive strategies that we talk about. It’s important to address these things when he is not distressed. Trying to teach strategies, calming tools, reminding them of things they know how to do to manage their feelings, doing that in the moment when they are distressed and escalating is not going to be effective. So you want to be proactive and have some of these conversations when the child is not distressed. Like, “Wow, I noticed that was really a hard thing that happened during that game with your friends”, or “Boy, you know, I want to think about what happened earlier today when I told you it was time to turn the video games off”, or whatever it might be. You’re reflecting on it at a time when they are calm and not distressed. You’re talking about teaching or modeling other ways to express uncomfortable feelings. Even practicing and roleplaying some of those. You’re also ideally going to be teaching some strategies, giving some tools for ways that he can calm himself before he blows up, whether that’s some breathing strategies, some mindfulness strategies, doing something like squeezing a stress ball, blowing bubbles, whatever it might be. There are lots of tools, I’m not going to get into all of that on this episode, although there are lots of other episodes of this podcast, and lots of things on my blog and things that I posted on social media about specific tools, lots of great information that you can get online and elsewhere from many different sources, around tools that you can teach kids, specific strategies and things like that. So those are important things to work on with a child who really is easily dysregulated like this and needs some alternative ways to help soothe their nervous system and manage uncomfortable feelings, but you’re working on those things on a daily basis at time when they are not blowing up and distressed. And when you work on those skills then, then that starts to give them some tools when they get good at using those kinds of tools and strategies when they’re not upset and overwhelmed, then it’s more likely that you can embed those into these challenging moments, and they’ll be able to use those better with you. But you need to do lots of practice outside of dysregulated kinds of situations. So that’s the long term strategy and approach with this.
We talked about big picture things to keep in mind, specific strategies, things to say, ways to get through these moments, and then some things to think about in the long term if you have a kid struggling with these things. I really hope that this is helpful for Shante and for any of you who are struggling with how to manage kids who say really mean things and verbally get really worked up in the heat of the moment when they’re upset.
Remember, if you have a question you would like to hear answered on a future show, I would love for you to email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “Podcast Question” in the subject line, that helps us sort through those. Thank you, as always, for listening, and I will catch you back here next time.