Teasing & Name-calling

Teasing & Name-calling

When name calling is done to tease or be hurtful, the dynamics are different than with a friend who chooses an unacceptable term of endearment as discussed in What’s in a Name. Suggesting your child say what she wants to be called, which can be helpful in the case of a friend, might only give an adversary more ammunition to do the opposite, especially since adversarial name-calling is usually done by kids who have a high need for power.  For them, putting down others is a way to build themselves up.

Unfortunately, too often in our media and entertainment, our society models this tactic, and our kids pick it up. It’s even worse if put-downs are used on kids at home. That sets up a kind of “pecking-order” mentality that extends beyond the family to anyone who appears more vulnerable.

In a middle-school youth group I volunteered for a while back, when one child who was a bit socially awkward started putting down another child who was even more awkward, I took the name-caller aside and listened SAY WHAT YOU SEE style with the intention of understanding why a great kid like him would do that. It came out that he was desperate for respect.

Knowing that, I was able to help him figure out a better way to get it. Once he heard it, he actually preferred the idea of gaining respect by acting as a hero and sticking up for others who were being put down.

Ideally, all name-calling children should be listened to and helped to find healthy CAN DOs that meet their needs and build their STRENGTHs. If you cannot reach them, see if someone at their school or in their lives can.

The other side is to help the children being picked on to understand that the name-calling is really not about them; it’s actually the result of the name-caller’s problem. This came out very clearly in one conversation I had with a little girl who was in tears because a boy in her class had discounted something she said that was important to her. According to her she was excited about something and the boy turned to her and “meanly” retorted, “So what?!!” then walked off.

As always I started by saying what I saw:

SWYS: “He said, ‘So what,’ and you didn’t like that! You feel upset!”
Child: (Crying harder) “I felt like I didn’t matter.”
SWYS: “Awww. That felt really bad. Sounds like he might have been angry to say that.”
Child: (Nods and sniffs back her tears.) “He’s always angry.”
SWYS: “Oh, so he was probably angry before he even came into the room.”
Child: (Nods again.)
To help her see his perspective I said: “So what do angry boys say?”
Child: (Brightening suddenly) “So what?”
I nodded, and her upset ended.

When she realized that it really was his problem, not something she had done or anything she could control, she recovered completely and skipped off to join her friends.

Bully-proofing with STRENGTHs is another post I wrote that takes a different approach to help a boy who was teased about not being tough enough: STRENGTH-building

In general, for your child to be able to let “mean” names roll off, he/she needs to understand two things: 1) the name-calling behavior is a way for the other child to feel better about him/herself; it’s not about your child, and 2) it’s not your child’s job to control the behavior of another; your child can only control his/her own. So if cooperation is not possible with another child, yours needs to get support from you, a teacher, or a counselor to make healthy choices about how to stay safe and feel good about him/herself.

The final facet of the name-calling issue is approval – the desire to please others and be liked. While a certain degree of wanting to be accepted and belong is normal and builds connection, when feeling good about oneself depends on the opinions of others, it’s no longer healthy. If a child’s behavior has been managed with approval at home and/or at school, this will transfer to their relationships with other children and can increase their susceptibility to peer pressure as preteens and teens.

So if not being liked is the problem, you might want to have a conversation with the child about that. Often needing to be liked by everyone is coupled with the pressured feeling that he/she has to like everyone, too. Neither one of these works. We all have likes and dislikes. Trying to change or control those or other people’s is fruitless. So as above with name-calling, the steps you want to help your child take are to learn how to let other people’s likes and dislikes roll off, and what to do to stay safe and feel good about him/herself.

Concerning sibling name-calling…



  1. Angel |

    Dear Sandy thank you so much for your detailed
    Reply! It is with not a doubt the best response
    I’ve ever got for an inquiry. Thank you !
    Your work is precious keep it up !!!

    • Angel,

      You are welcome! With your question, you took the topic deeper and inspired this post, which I hope will benefit others as well. Thank you!

  2. Amerin |

    So, help me respond to my kids when one of mine is calling the other sibling a name, they (the name caller) is usually angry or frustrated. How can I get the name calling to stop? I can imagine the conversation of, “you’re really angry, and we don’t call people names” And the name calling will continue. Help me with what I can do next, should I and the child being called a name leave the room, I have tried to get the other one to step away until they are calm but they don’t want to step away? Then should I follow up with a separate conversation when they are calm about name calling? Do I follow up with anything else (consequence, I think we have tried usually an apology to the person, verbal or written. But still we have the name calling, perhaps I need to just keep on… Or any other techniques you can suggest to try?

  3. Amerin, your question may come up for many readers. I have provided your answer and a sample script in a new blog post inspired by your question. Thank you for asking! https://languageoflistening.com/blog/how-do-i-get-my-child-to-stop-name-calling/

  4. Celeste |

    Sandy, I have just searched your site for “name calling” hoping that you would have something for me after a particularly difficult week. This was just what I needed today so thank you very much once again for imparting your valuable wisdom. I’ve said it before and will say it again, the work that you do is so important. And I am also thankful today for the internet, without which I never would have found you or been able to benefit from your knowledge. Thank you!

    • Celeste, it’s good to hear from you! Your dedication to creating a loving home warms my heart. I’m so glad you found what you were looking for.

      I hope you saw the additional name-calling post in answer to Amerin’s question about siblings above. I just now added a link to the foot of the blog post to make it easier to find.

      Please let me know what you try and how it goes. If you need an answer you can’t find in a search, I welcome questions on the contact page, especially when I can share them as future blog posts.

  5. Kris |

    What if the problem is older preson teasing the parents with calling the toddler with different name that parents gave him
    Person is acting like friendly but in reality his purpose is to tease

    • Kris,

      Thank you for your comment.

      You said the person is acting friendly but his purpose is to tease. It sounds like his teasing comes across as adversarial to you, not just friendly, and that you might be one of the parents.

      If you want to maintain a warm, friendly relationship with this person without building up resentment, you will need to speak up and tell that person you don’t like the use of a different name for your child, and work out a solution…exactly like the children did in the previous post: https://www.languageoflistening.com/whats-in-a-name

      If resentment has already built up, it could be because this has been going on for a while and you haven’t said anything for fear it would offend the older person, or because the older person didn’t like the child’s given name to begin with and couldn’t say anything openly without fearing he would offend you. Concern over offending each other means you both value your relationship, which creates the solid foundation needed to work together toward a solution. An open discussion about how you both really feel could clear the air and allow you to finally come up with a solution that works for you both.

      However, if the older person teases about everything, it might just be his way of connecting with people. The best way to maintain a warm, friendly relationship with a person like that is to accept him the way he is, let him know when his teasing goes too far, and set clear boundaries for what is and is not OK with you, because he really won’t know. Again this assumes that a good relationship is important to both you and him.

      If you understand that no offense is intended, and are able to see his use of a different name for your toddler as his way to build a special connection with the child, then the child can grow up feeling the same. You didn’t say if your toddler cares what name the older person uses, but if your child already doesn’t like being called a different name, then you can help him or her speak up for himself or herself and problem-solve with the older person…again, just like the two children in the previous post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *