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“Boy, come on over here and stop being stupid! With yo’ nappy headed self!”

My head spun around so hard that I nearly gave myself whiplash. I know that I did not just hear that mother say that to her child! I quickly checked the mom’s body language to see if the poor child was in danger.  On the contrary, the mom roughly pulled the boy to her with a loving hug as she chastised him. And the little boy seemed use to being addressed this way. But I couldn’t help wondering how many times a day this little boy heard this from his mother, and what it made him feel about himself deep, deep down inside.

Most African-American parents would be appalled at the idea of physically abusing their children.  Why? Because we know that it’s wrong, hurtful and can leave a lasting negative impact on our children. So why is it that many of us have no problems using our words to create that same hurtful and lasting impact?

One reason may be because we’re living what we’ve been taught.  Many of our parents spoke harshly to us in an effort to toughen us up for the world, so we speak harshly to our children.  But more importantly it may because in African-American communities we haven’t identified this behavior for what it is – verbal abuse.  According to, verbal abuse includes  “withholding [kind words], bullying, defaming, defining, trivializing, harassing, diverting, interrogating, accusing, blaming, blocking, countering, lying, berating, taunting, put downs, abuse disguised as a joke, discounting, threatening, name-calling, yelling and raging.”

And there’s no doubt that verbal abuse makes a negative impact on our children.  In fact, the American Journal of Psychiatry says there’s concrete evidence that verbal abuse in childhood can actually interfere with brain development, and leave children vulnerable to depression, anxiety, hostility and even drug use.

If you have a sneaking suspicion that your words are borderline abusive, there are ways to retrain the way you speak to your children.  Here are some coping steps from everyone’s favorite TV psychiatrist, Dr. Phil:

  1. Recognize your behavior – If your conversations with your child includes name calling, belittling or yelling, then Mommy we have a problem!
  2. Identify the first sign of a meltdown – What does it feel like when you’re about to go off on your child.  Do you get hot or see red?  It’s important that you identify the signals.
  3. Chose to cope and not explode – One you feel the signs, consciously make the decision not to explode.  Cope in a way that makes it impossible for you to lash out at your child.  Clamp your mouth shut or even walk away from your child if you have to.
  4. Write down your thoughts – It may sound crazy, but why not carry a notebook in your purse?  When you have the urge to go off on your child or speak negatively write down your thoughts.  Once you read what you’ve written, it will be easier to see how these harsh words can have a negative impact.
  5. Reward yourself – Congratulate yourself for not going plumb off!  Our children can push us to the edge, so it’s a major accomplishment not to default to negative behavior.
  6. Make it a positive experience – Now that you’ve gotten yourself together, go back to your child and have a positive experience.  Give him a hug or a kiss.  Calmly explain to your child what he did wrong and what behavior you’d like to see.

Find an accountability partner that you trust, like a positive girlfriend who also has kids. If you have someone who you can talk to about your behavior, it will be easier to change.  And don’t be afraid to get long-term help from a counselor, pastor or social worker.  No one will judge you negatively for trying to be a better parent.

Words shape our children’s future behavior, so let’s work hard to make their futures bright.

How do you keep yourself from going off on your child?

Yolanda Darville is a Nassau, Bahamas-based wife, mom and freelance writer focusing on issues that make a difference. To read more of her writings connect with her on Twitter.

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