We've all heard the phrase "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." What vicious lies our caretakers told us. This phrase is an absurdity many continue to perpetuate even today. It's all meant in good spirit, of course, uttered to encourage children not to let the harsh words of others get to them. But in doing so, it aims to brush right over the hurt and ignore a child's emotions. It's time we finally put an end to this phrase once and for all.
The reality is that words do hurt us. In fact, the social pain that is caused by vicious words is registered in the same area of the brain that monitors physical pain.(1) Moreover, stress caused by interpersonal social pain, such as that created over name-calling or taunting, causes a higher spike in cortisol (the stress hormone) than it does for other stressors, and this spike in stress hormones also stays on the brain for longer under such circumstances.(2) That's scientific language for: words can hurt just as much, and often more, than sticks and stones. Yes, as we've all secretly suspected, words really do hurt.
This phrase in itself is a recipe for emotional harm. When parents tell a child that words shouldn't hurt, you're sending a youngster several problematic messages by such an assertion:
A) You should just easily brush off someone's meanness (and by default, if you aren't able to show such a steel backbone, something must be wrong with you.) In actuality, the children least able to brush it off are usually those with the highest levels of empathy. You're punishing the good children for being a compassionate person, while sending the message that they should lose this good quality in favor of "not caring."
B) It's dismissive of a child's emotions. You're not comforting the hurt. You're not helping them work through or refute what was said. You're encouraging them to suppress their emotions and bury the hurt deep inside. This pattern of emotional suppression in families can do just as much harm as chronic abuse can over the course of time.(3)
C) Parents may not realize it, but such a phrase actually gives encouragement to teasing, taunting, and bullying. I can't tell you how many times in the classroom I've had a child try to justify their maliciousness by saying that, "it's just words so it shouldn't bother her." Parents utter such a phrase when their own child is on the hurtful end of a statement, but through this phrase, caregivers essentially give the child a license of their own to do the same to others. Not only is the parent not acknowledging the wrongfulness of the other child's taunting, but they're doing this while sending the message that such taunting is "no big deal." This works in both directions. A child who has their own torment brushed off will get the message that tormenting others is "no big deal."
Sticks and stones may break bones. But words can also destroy the psyche. They can cause mind numbing depression and sadness. They quite regularly drive people towards physical aggression, suicide, or even homicide. Another surprising fact for many: verbal abuse (mere words) is actually 7-times more correlated with lasting harm than sexual abuse. (4) The reason is simple: the harm to children comes through messages more often than actions. A beating may be unpleasant, but it's the messages such an action sends that will stick with a child. Negative ideas persist long after an action is done with, which is why verbal abuse does more harm in the long run than just about any other type of abuse. The most harmful acts to a child come not through actions, but through the destructive ideas they are left with after. Although the verbal lashing that comes from peers in an elementary school setting is less potent than that from caretakers, (who, at the time, play a higher role of importance for the child than their friends); this fact also illustrates why it's important for parents to not merely brush words under the rug. Instead...
A) Teach your child that aggression is aggression, whether verbal or physical. All aggression is wrong, and so words doled out with the intention of injuring another are also wrong.
B) When your child feels hurt over someone words, DON'T BE NEGLECTFUL. Do your parental duty and take the time to address it properly. The phrase "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" arose because parents didn't want to take the time to address the very real injury that words can cause. At the very minimum, your child needs to hear that the other child was in the wrong by being mean. Their emotions need to be acknowledged.
C) If it is something silly and ridiculous or minor in nature, help the child to reach that conclusion through reasoning with them, but don't brush aside their emotions.
Our emotions are far from accurate. They have a tendency to over-react, to see the world through distorted lenses, and at times drive us towards ridiculous behavior. But they are hardly silly or unimportant, and can't merely be brushed under the rug. We'll end with a quote by T. Rusk and N. Rusk in their book, 'Mind Traps': "The 'feelings are foolish' trap originates in childhood. To prevent it, adults need to pay greater attention to the comforting of children. Only if children are reassured that emotional hurt is an unavoidable part of life will they be able to learn healthy attitudes toward emotional discomfort. Parents' concern for feelings- their children's and their own - validates feelings as important messages worth understanding. And since feelings come from the core of a person, if you validate feelings, you validate the person." It's time for parents to start validating their child, and let's skip the vicious lies about words not hurting.
1. N. Eisenberger & M. Lieberman, "Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain," Science, 87: 294-300, 2004
2. S. Dickerson & M. Kemeny, "Acute stressors and cortisol responses: a theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research," Psychological Bulletin, 130: 355-91, 2004
3. Global Children's Fund (2009) Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison, Unpublished manuscript, available on request.
4. P.G. Ney, T. Fung, & A.R. Wickett, "The worst combinations of child abuse & neglect." Child Abuse & Neglect, 18, 705-714, 1994
5. T. Rusk & N. Rusk (1988) 'Mind Traps,' Los Angeles, CA: Price Stern Sloan Publishers