It doesn't matter if your toddler learned name-calling from watching TV or is imitating unkind words he heard his friends use left unchecked, this can develop into a hard-to-break habit. Less obviously than hitting or kicking, name-calling is a form of bullying. Children also resort to name calling when they feel out of control or hurt. Stopping your toddler from name calling requires skillful parenting and teaching him more appropriate ways to express himself.
- Remain calm when your toddler calls his brother "poopy-head" or his sister "stupid." Becoming angry or visibly upset can lead your little one to believe that name-calling is an effective way to provoke a reaction from you, which might lead him to continue the behavior in the future. Instead, downplay the name-calling by remaining calm and making it a nonissue. Without raising your voice, explain that name-calling isn't acceptable behavior in your family. You might say, "We don't call other people bad names in this family" or “I don't like it when you use that ugly word. Please don't call anybody that word ever again."
- Teach your little one how to be more empathetic and sensitive to other people's feelings. The problem isn't so much which bad names your toddler uses, because she might not even understand their meaning. The bigger issue is your toddler's insensitivity to other people's feelings. Explain to her that words can hurt and make others feel bad. You might say, "How do you feel when your sister calls you a bad name?"; "I don't blame you for being mad that it's bedtime, but name-calling is unacceptable"; or "It's understandable that you're upset with your brother for breaking your toy, but hurting others with words is not allowed."
- Help your toddler find more appropriate language to express his anger and frustration. Explain that it's normal to feel mad, but name-calling is an unacceptable way of handling his upset feelings. Teach him how to more skillfully express himself to others. You might say, "I don't blame you for being mad at your sister for hitting you, but tell her why you're angry without calling her a bad word" or "Explain to your brother why you're upset without calling him an ugly name."
- Offer positive reinforcement when your toddler expresses her feelings in a respectful manner without resorting to name-calling. Congratulate and praise her for behaving more maturely. Reward her with hugs, kisses, a new toy or stickers. You might say, “I am so proud of you for calmly telling me you're mad that it's bedtime without name-calling" or "You did a great job of explaining to your brother why you're upset without calling him a name." Positive reinforcement will encourage your little one to continue healthy self-expression and stop using put-downs.
- Be mindful of how you handle stress so you don't slip into name-calling yourself. Some children who bully are mimicking behavior that they see at home. If your toddler is constantly exposed to bullying and aggressive interactions in your family, he might learn to treat others in the same unkind manner. Avoid name-calling and speaking disparagingly about others, such as your boss, your mother-in-law, the cashier at the supermarket or others who upset you. Apologize to your toddler if you slip up. You might say, "Mommy lost her temper at the supermarket and didn't mean to call you a 'brat.' I love you and didn't mean what I said. Name-calling is wrong and I won't do it again." Be a role model for healthy self-expression.