Let’s say your child speaks nastily. You then try to teach Junior to be kind, and you say, “When you say that, it makes me sad/angry/feel bad.” That sounds simple enough, and it would be considered a “successful” behavior/emotion management strategy if Junior “gets” your point and refrains from making further noxious statements.
But here’s how the whole thing can backfire. The statement, “When you say that, it makes me sad/angry/feel bad,” is inherently irrational. Objectively speaking, the words of another person simply do not dictate your emotions, unless you allow them to. If you tell your child, “When you say that, it makes me sad/angry/feel bad,” you grant your child extraordinary power over your emotions, and you essentially allow yourself to become an emotional puppet controlled by your child. Of course, that was not your intention, but in using phrases like, “When you say that, it makes me sad/angry/feel bad” you also inadvertently give your child a subtle, dangerous, and irrational message that the words of other people can hurt him. Of course, you want Junior to be kind to others, but don’t you also want Junior to be strong and resilient in response to the unkind words of others? If an aggressive peer on the school playground says to your child, “I don’t like you, I think you’re ugly,” do you want your child to feel “wounded” and “share” with the aggressive peer his vulnerability by emoting, “When you say that, it makes me sad/angry/feel bad”? Or, would you prefer that your child say something like, “Too bad for you, I love myself, and now I’m going to go play without you” as he proudly and confidently strides off to play elsewhere?
As a society, we have become obsessed with taking “offense” at the words of others. There are lawsuits filed (and won!) due to use of “offensive” words. Of course, we recognize that freedom of speech is not without limits and that there is a great value to protecting people from truly menacing and threatening rhetoric, but there is also a great value that must be ascribed to helping children become emotionally resilient. That can be achieved by teaching your child that vicious or ignorant words spoken by a peer indicate that the peer has a problem. Maybe the other child who spoke with ill-temper is feeling cranky, unhappy, or unkind. But that is not your child’s problem. Vicious words that are cast at your child by a peer provide an opportunity for you to teach your child that “self-esteem” and “self-respect” come from the “self,” not others. This is a great opportunity to help your child examine the question, “Why do I want to play with someone, who doesn’t want to play with me?” And, it is also a great opportunity to teach your child that playing alone can be just as much fun as playing with another child or group of children.
Resilience is one of the greatest gifts “Maximum Strength Parents” can give/teach to their children, and resilience requires strength, restraint, self-esteem, maturity, and self-confidence. It is never too early to get started on that journey. If, instead, you want to teach your child that “words wound,” then your child will indeed be wounded by words.