Do you remember the old adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”?
Well, it isn’t true. It doesn’t matter what age you are. Name-calling, put-downs, slander, malicious gossip or intimidation always hurt. Today, if these behaviours are persistent and intended to cause another person harm, we call it “emotional abuse”.
Emotional abuse can fester in families, in workplaces, on social media, in the schoolyard…
It was Anna’s bedtime. The stories had been read, prayers said, songs sung. Anna’s mum tucked her into bed and kissed her goodnight. “Sleep tight. It’s school again tomorrow.”
Anna started to cry. Her mum wrapped her arms around the little one, and tried to console her. Anna began to sob uncontrollably. Her mum knew what was wrong.
“I don’t want to go to school tomorrow. Mummy, can’t I stay home with you?” Anna blurted out.
Anna’s mum gave the usual explanation as to why Anna, in Year 2, has to go to school.
This was not the first time Anna tried to get out of going to school. Often, on school days, Anna complains of having a pain in the tummy or a headache; she begs her mum to let her stay at home.
On the occasions when Anna talks about how she is feeling, her mum has discovered the underlying problem: Anna is having trouble making friends at school. Also, she doesn’t seem to be able to deal with conflict or negative comments by her peers. According to Anna, one particular girl in her Year 2 class has been calling her names, making fun of her, and leaving her out of their games.
Given that Anna was so upset, her granddad (who was visiting) went to sit with her, to offer comfort and some words of wisdom. Not only that, but Anna’s mum hoped that Anna would open up and tell her granddad what was worrying her. And she did.
Anna told him that a girl in her class calls her “sucker” and “loser”. Her granddad asked Anna: “Are you a sucker?” Anna replied, “No.” Granddad: “Are you a loser?” Anna: “No.” Her granddad asked Anna to explain her understanding of the word “loser”. She did. He asked: “Are you like that?” Anna replied, “No.” Granddad: “Anna, what are the things about you, or things you do, that are good?” Anna named several things. Granddad: “Are you a loser, then?” Anna: “No.” Granddad: “There are lots of wonderful things about you, and things you can do, that your little friend at school knows nothing about. So, take no notice if she calls you ‘loser’ again. You are not a loser.”
Anna’s granddad taught her a song. It is a song about Jesus and Jesus’ ability to help us when we are upset, unwell, or in trouble. He told Anna she can recall this song whenever she feels worried or threatened. When they finished singing, granddad prayed. Anna was settled, and she fell fast asleep. When she awoke the next day, she went off to school quite happily. A little victory!
I remember clearly an incident from my own school days that involved name-calling and a real put-down. It may not have been “emotional abuse” in that it was a one-off incident. However, the fact that I remember it so vividly indicates just how powerful an impact it had on me at the time.
Like Anna, I was in my second year at school. I recall that some of my classmates used to call me “teacher’s pet”, probably because I was doing well at school. That was their way of taunting me. Like Anna, they also tried to leave me out of their games.
It was the “big lunch” break, we had finished eating our packed lunches and it was playtime. The school grounds were graced with many huge foliage trees, and we often played on the swings, seesaws and climbing frames located in the shade of these magnificent trees. On this particular day I was with a group of about six children from my class, when one of them came up with the idea of “playing trains”. We all agreed.
The game organiser allocated to each of us a section of the train: engine, dining carriage, sitter, sleeper, luggage van, guard carriage, and so on. Finally, everyone but me had their allocation.
“What about me?” I asked, feeling dismissed, left out.
The organiser promptly pushed me into line, and announced with glee: “You are the dunny cart!”
This met with peals of laughter and jeering from the others. It was a great joke. But for me, it was not at all funny. I was devastated. I didn’t want to be the dunny cart, the toilet carriage. This was an insult. I knew I was being singled out. “They do not like me” I remember thinking. For me, it was important to be liked.
“No,” I retorted. “That is not fair. I am not being the dunny cart!” I walked away, crying, “I do not want to play with you anymore. I don’t want to play trains.”
I was very upset. No-one came to console me: everyone else seemed to think it was funny. I’m not sure what the other children did after that, but I went and told my teacher, Mrs Major. I knew she would listen to me and deal with my “adversaries”.
After the lunch break, when we returned to the classroom, Mrs Major asked each of us involved in the “train” episode to come to the front of the class. I remember Mrs Major clearly: She was a tall, imposing, upright woman, with grey hair pulled back into a bun. We children were all a little frightened and in awe of her. Funny, but now I think her name was very appropriate.
Mrs “Sergeant” Major made my classmates apologise for the way they treated me, which of course made me feel better. On the other hand, Mrs “Sergeant” Major made it clear to me that she was not pleased that I reported the incident. I got the distinct impression that she did not want us coming to her to adjudicate our playground disputes. While I felt vindicated, I also felt chastened.
This was one of my first lessons about how I ought to respond to unfair treatment or conflict, especially that involving my peers.
I’ve had many such lessons throughout life. And I’m still learning.
The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is simply not true.
It’s not true for children; it’s not true for adults. At any stage of life, name-calling, put-downs, false accusations, malicious gossip and intimidation really do hurt. Continuous, repetitive behaviour of this kind that is intended to cause harm is abuse. Today it’s called “emotional abuse” or “psychological abuse”.
It is widely recognised that more and more children in primary and secondary schools today experience social anxiety and fear of the school environment, often due to emotional abuse by their peers. For some of these children, those who do not get adequate help to deal with their anxiety and fears, the result can be dire: personality changes, depression, self-harm, mental health problems, hospitalisation.
How should we deal with situations of emotional abuse when they occur?
How can we prepare our children to deal with name-calling, taunting, bullying or conflict with their peers?”
Here are a few practical suggestions for parents of school-age children:
1. Prepare your child for school, before they start school. Talk about the school environment: what it is like, what they can expect, how they should behave, how others may behave. Be realistic, but positive.
2. From an early age, encourage your child to come to you and tell you about his or her worries or concerns. Listen. Take them seriously. Point out any flaws in their assessment of the situation. Work together on possible ways to deal with the problem. Pray with the child. Teach your child to pray and talk to God about all things, including their worries and concerns.
3. Aim to build up your child’s resilience, that is, his or her capacity to deal positively and appropriately with conflict. Help your child understand that conflict is normal, and unavoidable. Remind the child of their strengths and past triumphs over difficulties. Tell your own stories about how you dealt with conflict as a child, including the mistakes you made. Help them to learn to be self-reliant, and not dependent on you.
4. Model appropriate responses to conflict and difficult social situations. A simple example is what you do when the child has a disagreement with their sibling. Don’t make a big deal of the dispute. Don’t take sides. Let each one give their version of events. Help them to work out a solution themselves and to apologise to each other (if appropriate). Talk about the matter at a later time, when both children are calm and settled, and the disagreement is over.
5. Encourage your child to read stories that teach children how to deal with conflict and triumph over difficulties. There is no scarcity of children’s books on this theme. For example, the abridged children’s version of “Pilgrim’s Progress”, suitable for a child in mid-primary school, is a good starting point. Talk about the story. What was the problem? How was it resolved? What can we learn from the story? Bible stories, like those of Joseph and David when they were young, are also instructive.
6. When your child tells you about a specific incident involving conflict with a peer, encourage your child to talk to you about it. Aim to get the full story. Do not assume that your child is without fault in the situation. Ask questions. Use Rudyard Kipling’s 6 key words (What, Why, When, How, Where and Who) as a guide:
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
7. Encourage your child to tell you how they feel about the other person(s) who may be causing them anxiety. Ask: How do you feel when you meet this person or when you are in their company? What do you do and say? What could you do differently?
8. Offer your child some suggestions for coping strategies. Examples are:
- Have a friend with you, if possible, when you meet or have to be in the company of the person who is causing you anxiety;
- Respond calmly, but assertively to any negative comments – don’t get angry or say rude things in return;
- Avoid the person where possible, not because you are weak, but because it is wise and you are more likely to stay safe;
- Report ongoing improper behaviour to your teacher or school principal – take a friend with you for support;
- Share your concerns with the school chaplain or counsellor (if the school has one);
- Let your parents know about what is happening;
- Learn and practice relaxation techniques;
- Activate positive thoughts about yourself and the situation.
The Brave Program is an excellent interactive online program run by The University of Queensland which aims to help children aged 8-12, and teens aged 12-17, deal with social anxiety. For each age group, there is a program for the child or adolescent and one for the parent(s). I recommend you take a look at this resource.
9. Acknowledge and accept that some conflict or problems are not solvable. This is when we must trust God alone to help us – and our children – cope with a particular person, situation or set of circumstances, over which we have little or no control. Pray about the situation with your child and for your child.
A few months ago, I heard an excellent sermon on Psalm 4. The preacher commenced by quoting the adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. He went on to say that King David (the author of the psalm) knew only too well that cruel names and false accusations really do hurt. In this psalm David reveals how he dealt with the distress he felt when he was slandered, taunted and treated unfairly: He took his situation to God in prayer. So should we.
If you know a young person or adult who is in a relationship that involves emotional abuse, it is important you encourage that person to seek help. Click HERE for more information about emotional abuse.