When our child gets teased, battered and bullied by another child’s hurtful words, we parents are inclined to step in and fix it by saying things like, “Oh honey, that’s not true.” Or, “You don’t deserve that.” Or maybe we’ll criticize the aggressor (especially if that aggressor is an older sibling). Quick fix responses like this may settle things down in the short-term, but keep parents in the role of managing all the difficult emotions instead of empowering their kids. This article will teach you how to equip your kids to filter through what others say to them and respond wisely instead of cover their hurt feelings with anger.
We’ve coached many parents how to equip their kids with wisdom to assess the value of what others say to them. You too can help your children learn to place the things others say to them in one of three categories: Trash, Truth and Treasure.
Hurtful Trash – These are the unkind, untrue, hurtful things that others say to us, usually out of their own frustration or discouragement. To make this concrete for your child, write down the hurtful words on a piece of paper, wad up the paper, and throw it in the garbage can. Let them know, “By throwing these words in the trash, you won’t accidentally pass this hurt on to someone else, or carry trash around in your heart with you during your day.”
Here is an example of how this concept permeated a family’s culture:
9-year-old Blake would often come home from school in a fit of anger at anyone in his path, usually because of interactions with his critical, shaming teacher. His mom was helping him and his 6-year-old brother learn to separate out what others said into trash, truth and treasure. One day Blake came home particularly upset, and spewed angry hurtful words at his mom as he came through the door. His little brother compassionately responded, “Mommy, you just throw those words right in the trash!” Over time Blake did learn to talk about and understand his hurt, and give less power to negative words from his teacher.
Proverbs 26:2 is a great verse to strengthen the confidence of any child upset by the harsh words of others: “Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest.” One girl was so encouraged by this verse that she memorized it, and it helped her neither fight back nor break down in tears to her brothers’ taunts.
Helpful Truth – Sometimes the things people say are true, even though we don’t like to hear them. Proverbs 27:6a tells us, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted…” Think of a time when you learned and grew from someone’s criticism that was accurate, even though it hurt. Our kids will miss important growth opportunities if they automatically lash back or blow off all criticism.
Sometimes trash and truth are mixed together. This might happen if there is helpful truth in something that was overstated or said harshly. Consider if someone says this to your child, “You’re such a baby, you always have a fit when you lose,” and he fires back with something like, “I am NOT a baby. You’re a baby!”
Here’s how you can help your child separate out the trash from the truth through thoughtful questions that build confidence and wisdom:
“Hmm. Those were some strong words. Let’s think about this. Are you a baby?”
“No! I’m five!”
“That’s right. And is Ian a baby?”
“You know the truth! And do you always have a fit when you lose?”
“No, not always.”
After you help your child toss away the “trash,” you can help them discover the “truth” of what was said.
“So you can put most of those words in the trash, right? But is it true that you do sometimes get really upset and yell when you lose?”
“Yeah, I guess so…”
“That was really honest! If you want I can help you learn to be more peaceful when you lose a game so you’ll have more fun when you play.”
For both kids and adults, learning to separate trash from truth is a life changing skill. This guides us to see hard, but helpful truth as a gift. Your best teaching will be your example, so tell your kids about about it anytime you learn and grow from criticism.
Heart-strengthening Treasure – These are the words of encouragement that help us have confidence in who God created us to be, like when someone notices our hard work, or a kindness, or simply reminds us of how loved and valuable we are. The Bible is full of wonderful treasures of how much God loves us and values us, no matter if we make mistakes or others treat us unkindly. Zephaniah 3:17 says “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
One of our readers told us this story about how she guides her 8-year-old daughter to hang on to “the treasure” when taunted by her siblings. Here’s how it often goes:
“Desiree, what is true? Let’s think upon these things.” And then, “What does God say about you”? Sometimes if my daughter gets stuck, I help her with some phrases she can repeat: “I am beautiful, I am one of a kind and God adores me!” I always ask her if she believes these words, and sometimes through tears she will nod her head yes.
To make this concrete for your child, you can work with your child to keep heart-strengthening treasures. Together you can write treasure statements on slips of paper and put them in a special keepsake box or journal.
Lydia, a coaching client, used three-dimensional objects in their home to explain Trash, Truth and Treasure.
I talked with my girls about where we put things depending on what they are:
– a trash can (worthless things)
– compost (a source of growth)
– recycling (something valuable to be saved and used)
We looked at the containers for all three and talked about how words can fit into these categories. They really liked this object lesson and talked about what words would fit into which place. It was really good for my daughter who struggles with her sister’s harsh words and gives them power over her!
Share with your kids your journey in this area, and celebrate even small steps of growth for either of you. When kids learn this, they are learning something most adults struggle with! Continue to reinforce their confidence: “When people say hurtful things, you can figure out what’s really true and what to do! Then you can learn and grow instead of letting your anger control you.”
Teaching kids this concept will prepare them well to face many challenges, including sibling conflict, as well as peer pressure and social media. You may even find them being more thoughtful about the words they say to others!
Take 10 to 15 minutes to find out your strengths and challenges with our free parenting assessment.