There’s an old rhyme that children learned to use if they were called a name while they were growing up. You may know it already. It goes like this: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
The rhyme of course means that since words can’t hurt you physically, they should be easily ignored. That may be wonderful in theory, but in reality it can be difficult to disregard a hurtful comment. If this is true for you as an adult, it’s even more true for your child, who may have to deal with verbal bullying far more often, while having less experience than an adult in how to handle it.
Although verbal abuse tends to be discussed less than cyber bullying or physical bullying, it may be an even greater problem. According to the website dosomething.org, that’s because physical bullying starts in elementary school, peaks in middle school and declines in high school, but verbal bullying can remain constant from elementary school onward.
To compound the issue, it can be difficult to distinguish verbal bullying from constructive criticism. Although adults can more readily see distinctions between the two, it can be a challenge to explain to children exactly what the distinguishing traits are.
Here are some tips for helping children to understand if they are receiving constructive criticism or if they are being bullied:
Look for what the words focus on.
A key factor for differentiating between verbal bullying and constructive criticism is the focal point of the words. Explain to your child that constructive criticism focuses on an action while bullying focuses on the person. For example, if a fellow choir member offers feedback about your child’s singing performance, or if a coach offers feedback about a soccer game, their comments should focus on ways for helping your child to hit the right musical note, or ways for your child to make a better soccer pass next time – and not how your child looked during the event. Learning how to distinguish between the two can be a complicated process and will likely take some time.
Look for “the three T’s.”
Another warning sign that a child is experiencing verbal bullying and not constructive criticism is the presence of “the three T’s”: taunting, teasing and threatening. Since constructive criticism focuses on helping your child to improve, taunting, teasing and threatening would not be a part of it. Help your child to understand these concepts, and explain that if “the three T’s” are present, then your child should tell you or another respected adult about the matter as soon as possible.
Provide concrete examples.
After you have explained the distinguishing factors of verbal bullying and constructive criticism, give your child more examples and ask him or her to identify which ones show constructive criticism and which ones show bullying. As he or she begins to have a clearer understanding of the difference, ask your child to give you some examples of constructive criticism, without you coaching. By taking this final step, it can help to ensure that your child truly grasps the concept.
Be on the lookout for changes in your child that could be signs of verbal bullying, such as a sudden unwillingness to go to school, changes in eating or sleeping habits, or a drop in academic performance. Such signals can help you realize that you need to have a conversation about verbal bullying with your child. Then, as a team, you can decide together how you want to solve it.