Try to ignore name-calling daughters Nonintervention: Parents should stay out of sibling word wars so long as neither of the children is being deliberately cruel or violating family values.


June 23, 1996|By Beverly Mills | Beverly Mills,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My daughters are 6 and 4, and when they argue, they call each other names, like brat, meanie and baby. How can I get them to stop?

M.T., River Rouge, Mich.

As difficult as it may be, resist the temptation to intervene. But when your sanity is at stake and you have to do something, use techniques like humor and distraction that don't put you in the middle of the dispute.

Parent Julie Balyano of Phoenix, Ariz., recommends asking the child if she is, in fact, what her sibling has called her.

She gives this example of what transpired in her home after a name-calling incident:

Child: "He called me a booster seat!"

Parent: "Are you a booster seat?"

Child: "No. I'm Molly."

Balyano then told her daughter that since she wasn't a booster seat, she had nothing to worry about.

"I have found that this approach works for all name-calling, teaching the offended child that it matters only what she thinks of herself," Balyano says.

This gives the child power and cuts down on repeat performances because the name-caller learns he can't get a reaction, says Nancy Samalin, author of the newly published "Loving Each One Best" (Bantam, $22.95).

Unless the name-calling is deliberately cruel or violates family values, Samalin says, parents will probably be better off staying out of it. Children often call names out of annoyance or frustration, to get attention or simply because there's nothing better to do.

"For kids, fighting is fun. They like action," Samalin explains. So the more you referee, Samalin says, the more the kids fight.

In this case, where both girls seem to be hurling the insults, Samalin says no real harm is being done.

"Just because they call each other names doesn't mean they're going to hate each other as adults," Samalin says. "They are what I call equal opportunity insulters."

And although it may be little comfort, these wars of words are typical. Parents frequently rank fighting among siblings as their most difficult problem, says Samalin, who has been conducting parent workshops for 20 years.

In cases where you believe the name-calling is more serious, try to understand the source of the child's anger, suggests Henry Paul, a New York City psychiatrist and author of "When Kids are Mad, Not Bad" (Berkley, $5.99).

Too often parents focus on controlling behavior like name-calling rather than trying to find out why the child is using angry words.

After a name-calling incident, Paul recommends saying to the child: "That's a mean thing to say to your sister. What's bugging you?"

Don't be scared off by a child's angry words. Often, they will call names because they may not be able to tell you directly what is bothering them, Paul says.

You can also have the children work out their own solution, Samalin adds, which will teach them about problem-solving and negotiation. Those skills will also make them less likely to draw parents into future disagreements.

Humor can also stop a fight cold. In her book, Samalin tells the story of a mother asking her kids to keep fighting while she got the tape recorder because she wanted to record it for posterity.

"The kids will probably stop because they'll probably think you've lost your mind," Samalin says.

Distraction is particularly effective with young children. In the middle of a name-calling session, Samalin suggests, announce that it's time to call Grandma or that it's time for a cookie break.

Finally, be careful not to make rules you can't enforce. If parents outlaw the use of "brat," "meanie" and "baby," for instance, kids will think up other names, possibly more offensive, to call their siblings.

"Don't get into a lecture of 'We don't use that word in this family,' " Samalin advises. "We need to not overreact to power words."

Can you help?

Here are two new questions from parents who need your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608, or send e-mail to

Bad influences: "What should parents do when their rules are different or stricter than those of other families and their children see this? My child's cousins watch a lot of TV and are allowed to eat candy any time of day," says K.A. of Buffalo, N.Y. "The two families are close and around each other daily. What can I do to enforce my rules without seeming disapproving of their habits? How can I deal with it when my child wants to do the same things?"

Sad problem: "My 2-year-old granddaughter cries when she sees me or my husband or anyone new," says Diane Miskiewicz of Palatine, Ill. "I have tried ignoring her when I go to their home, but she screams so loud I have to leave. She is also afraid of loud noises, and she is having tantrums. How I long to hold her and love her. Can anyone help?"

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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