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How to deal with cussin’, bitin’ ... and tattooin’

In another excerpt from her book "Laying Down the Law," Dr. Ruth Peters advises parents on some vexing developmental issues.

Today in "Parenting Weekends" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

Using the Laws With Specific Developmental ProblemsKids can be especially tough to deal with during times of intense developmental change. I’d like to present a “sampler” of how to deal with specific behavior problems from a developmental standpoint. You may or may not have the joy of experiencing these particular issues, but just in case, here’s how I’d handle them using the laws provided in this book. These are typical of the ages that they represent, and although your own children may have other quirky behaviors, the techniques used can be extrapolated to other problem areas.

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Biting: Stop the ChompProblem: Having your toddler or preschooler clamp down on the forearm of your best friend’s son is not only frightening, but it’s really embarrassing. What kind of parent raises a kid who bites his buddies? Well, just about any parent, as this type of behavior is not as rare as you may think. Many little ones go through a biting phase in their early development. Most biters seem to outgrow this behavior when they can use words to express their needs and feelings, rather than depending upon their teeth to get the job done.

Resolution: It’s important to teach children that biting really hurts. But please don’t bite back just to get your message across! The most common parental reaction to being bitten is to bite or to smack the child. Although retaliation will definitely get your kid’s attention, the wrong lesson may be taught. There are more civil and effective ways of letting your child know that biting is inappropriate. First, respond with a firm “no” as you remove the child’s mouth from your body part. Keep your verbalization short and simple. “Don’t bite me. That hurts and you are not allowed to do that!” should clearly get the message across. I suggest to my clients that the “no” must be said firmly and that close eye contact is established. This usually makes the perpetrator think twice before clamping down on your fingers again!

If you’re dealing with a dyed-in-the-wool biter and this approach is less than effective, further consequences are in order. Try placing the child for a timeout in a chair, on the bottom step, in a corner, or a safe but boring spot. Kids generally dislike isolation and the timeout experience should reinforce that biting results in less parental or teacher attention, not more.

Probably the best way to deal with biting behavior, though, is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Try to determine if there is a pattern to your son’s biting. In what situations does it occur most often — at school or home, when tired or wired, with close pals or only with new kids? Many children bite when overstimulated, and you may find that a few minutes of quiet solitary play will give your son back the self-control necessary to play with others more appropriately.

In addition to considering restricting your son’s environment while he’s going through the biting phase, it’s also wise to teach him some pro-social actions. After saying no to aggression, follow up with a behavioral suggestion such as “I know that you want to play with Jason’s blocks. Let’s ask him if you can, and if not we’ll play with the cars.” Repeatedly showing your child an alternative technique for getting his needs met will eventually teach him to use his words rather than his teeth or other aggressive maneuvers. It may not work overnight, but it will be effective eventually. Kids can be stubborn and ornery and may need several go-rounds before they get the message.

Not to fear, though. Your child’s biting behavior, although embarrassing and perhaps nonsensical, will pass. Biting is not so much a predictor of future behavior problems as it is descriptive of emotional immaturity. Help your child to get through this stage of development by providing close supervision, removal from overstimulating situations, and a firm “no” or negative consequence such as a timeout or loss of a privilege. Don’t worry — he won’t bite his third-grade teacher when frustrated — that would not be cool!

Offensive Language: Where Did You Get That Mouth?Problem: Nasty language is a fact of life — almost all children go through a phase of emitting inappropriate words at one or more stages of development. There are three phases of using bad language that many children go through: around the second birthday (during early language acquisition), beginning in late preschool (at 4 or 5 years of age and progressing into grade school), and during the teen years. Using offensive language is a normal, yet embarrassing, activity that is easier to curb the younger the offender.

Resolution for preschoolers:
Generally, little kids use profanity or bad language in imitation of a parent or an older sibling. At this young age most kids are in the phase of language acquisition, where mimicry is a common occurrence. You may feel proud when your daughter finally puts three words together in a descriptive phrase but cringe when the little angel utters an expletive. Where did she get that four-letter word? Most likely from you! She’s been listening to and copying your speech for months or years and has probably been rewarded for doing so by your hugs and kisses. So what’s up when you get angry and recoil in embarrassment as she blurts out “damn it!” when she knocks over her tower of blocks? Sure doesn’t seem fair to her that you reward some utterances but get angry with others!

Knowing that your little one will imitate just about anything that she hears coming out of your mouth should put you on red alert. Be careful what you say, especially in anger, as you just may hear it again from her, and perhaps in public. Breaking yourself of swearing may seem a daunting task, but as with any negative habit, consistent attention to your behavior can curtail offensive words. Remember, it’s better to avoid initiating her swearing behavior than to have to stop an existing problem — so try to train yourself to exclude profanity from your own vocabulary before she even picks it up.

But if the kid has already been exposed to bad language and is beginning to use it in an experimental, imitating fashion, the best tactic is to try to ignore it. That includes not showing your surprise or anger, or even laughing at the utterance. All of these reactions are attention-givers, and with most kids, receiving attention for a behavior usually increases its future frequency. So try to ignore the inappropriate language and it will cease if it is not reinforced by yourself, other adults, or siblings (who may think that their little sister’s “damn it!” is the cutest thing). Sometimes, though, a short and simple explanation that the swear word is inappropriate may make sense to the 3-year-old and can curtail the issue without too much attention being given to the offensive behavior.

Resolution for grade schoolers: As we’ve seen, the swearing behavior of preschoolers is usually not intentionally provocative, but the bad language of the grade-schooler can definitely be purposeful. These kids may hear offensive words at school, at home, playing with friends in the neighborhood, or at the movies. Nasty language is not difficult to find and many kids think that using it is either cool, attention getting, grown up, an “in your face” maneuver, or just plain funny.

Calling someone a “butthead” seems to be a universal statement on all playgrounds. Kids tend to become obsessed with toileting language as well as body parts and fluids, and most have experimented with using these as descriptors. Calling someone a “snotty face” gets your attention as you visualize what that would really look like. Swearing and bad language are normal kid behaviors, but no matter how typical they are, the utterances can be humiliating and anger-provoking to parents and teachers.

What to do if your grade-schooler gets into the habit of uttering swear or potty words? First, put it into perspective — most likely your grade-schooler is just trying to be cool or is imitating what the kids are saying. Or if he’s in a rebellious stage, the “You’re stupid, you can’t make me!” or the “Hell with it” comment may be directed at getting you angry or involved with him. As with the little kids, it’s best to try ignoring the nasty language if it just seems to slip out and he appears to be as shocked as you at the utterance. If that’s the case, just redirecting his attention may work. However, if the offensive language becomes a habit, you should attach a significant negative consequence to it. In this way he’ll better remember that swearing or inappropriate language is not acceptable and will work on improving his vocabulary.

However, the child who purposefully swears in order to show who the boss is or to intimidate parents or peers is a horse of a different color. The basis for this type of offensive language is most likely a symptom of another problem — perhaps poor self-concept, feeling left out, believing parents to be unfair, or just not making it socially with other kids. If this is the case with your child, sit down and talk it over — try to ascertain why the youngster is so angry, fearful, or rebellious. Work out a plan of action that reinforces good behavior that your child will be proud of, rather than having to resort to bad language in order to gain attention or shock value. Your child will appreciate your time and effort to get him over this emotional hurdle and may not have to resort to bad language in the future.

Resolution for tweens and teens: Kids at this age know when they are using inappropriate language, and do so either out of habit or to fit in with their cohorts who are also swearing like sailors! If you find the behavior to be offensive, let the culprit know what expletives are acceptable in your home, and which ones are not. Many times during therapy I’ll help a family to develop a list of appropriate words that may be used in the home. Some may be of the four-letter variety but are deemed to be acceptable by Mom and Dad. Next, we set up a behavioral system to deal with mistakes made. If anyone (including parents) utters an unacceptable swear word, then the offending party must put money into a “dollar jar.” At the end of the month the family uses this money to go out to dinner, a movie, or another type of excursion. Even though the family members benefit from the dollar jar field trip, no one likes having to cough up cash for every swear word uttered! This is a great way to curtail Dad’s slipups and Mom’s inappropriate language when frustrated. It teaches kids that their folks will literally put their money where their mouth is and not be hypocritical by cursing themselves but not allowing swearing by the children.

Even if you get the offensive language down to a dull roar in the house, don’t expect that your kids will be swear-free with their friends. Many tweens and teens use curse words at school, when out with their friends, or shooting hoops on the courts. It comes with the territory and is a difficult habit to break when surrounded by others who may use more four-letter words than verbs. If you happen to overhear your child swearing in front of her friends, don’t be surprised. It may be best to let it go if it is only occasional and a slipup while she’s yakking on the telephone. Remember, with teens it’s usually best to carefully pick your battles — you don’t want to win this one only to lose the war!

The Ultimate Taboo: Getting a TattooProblem: Kids have the amazing habit of wanting to do things their way, even if it goes against the grain of your family code of values. And this seems to be strongest during the teen years. For example, let’s say that your 16-year-old daughter is driving you nuts about getting a tattoo — she just absolutely, positively has to have one in order to be happy. To hear the kid talk it’s as if she won’t be allowed to sit with her buddies at lunch unless she comes to school adorned with a rose petal on her left ankle. Throw into the picture that she’s a generally compliant child who makes adequate grades at school, and except for a few forays outside of the boundaries of acceptable behavior, she’s usually polite.

You, however, may disapprove of tattoos in general and especially for your kid. Tattoos may bring to mind drunken sailors, women of the night, or gang members, and you’ll be darned if your child will be sporting one as long as she’s living under your roof. However, your attitude is not playing well with the kid and she becomes insistent, demanding, and moody when the two of you try to discuss it. What to do?

Resolution: First, try to understand why a tattoo has become so important to her. Desiring a tattoo does not necessarily indicate that your child is having emotional or behavioral problems. In fact, the Council of Better Business Bureaus reported a study showing that 1 in 10 adolescents had a tattoo, and over 50 percent of the kids questioned noted that they wished that they could have one. What does a tattoo signify to an adolescent and why is it so alluring?

For many, a tattoo helps them with a sense of identity — it can connote belonging to a select group (perhaps risk-takers, nonconformists, tough kids, or the rose-on-the-ankle crowd). Other teens are attracted to the permanence of a tattoo — the very thing that parents take issue with. Many adolescents see their lives as constantly in flux — parents divorcing, family transitions, uncertainties as to which clique they belong to on a weekly or monthly basis, and romances that end almost before they are begun. Many kids have mentioned to me that, “At least my tattoo will be there — it’s permanent and I chose it.”

Also, consider the status that a tattoo can bring to a teen. From their point of view, it may be a symbol of power (“I had the guts to endure the pain”) or control (“I talked my folks into letting me get one” or “I got tattooed even though my parents forbade me to do so”). Status is important to most of us, but especially to a teen who has to worry about being accepted by peers on a daily basis. Others consider tattoos to be a fashion statement or a work of art. Adorning oneself with a classic design can be seen as enhancing your looks, much the same as a stylish, but perhaps extreme, haircut can be an attention-getting statement.

Now that you understand why your daughter is so adamant about getting a tattoo, it’s time for her to listen to your thoughts. If she has convinced you (and I personally would think that you were nuts) that a small rose petal, perhaps placed in a non-visible location on her body, is appropriate, then the issues to be dealt with are fairly clear-cut.

  1. Select a professional artist who subscribes to the strict health standards of the industry.
  2. Agree upon the design of the tattoo and where it will be placed.
  3. Decide who will pay for the tattoo.
  4. Understand that tattoo removal is expensive, painful, and frequently unsuccessful.

However, if you are still adamantly opposed to the idea even after listening to her argument, be prepared to stick to your guns! As a psychologist I believe that the parent not only has the right but also the responsibility to call the shots, especially when health issues or body modification are concerned. Be clear, concise, and specific with your decision. “You will not be allowed to have a permanent tattoo placed on your body while you are living in this house and I am responsible for you. I feel that at 16 you have no way of knowing how it will impact your life at 20, 30, or 40. The tattoo may cause you great embarrassment when you’re in college or looking for a job, and it may also affect how others perceive you. When you are on your own and are an adult, your body will be your responsibility and you’ll be able to make these decisions for yourself. At this time the answer is ‘no’ and you must abide by my wishes.”

If your child is especially defiant, she may find a way to get a tattoo without your permission. If you think that this is a possibility, warn her ahead of time that you will look into having it removed, and she will be responsible for the cost of the procedure. You may even want to describe how this is done in some appropriately grisly detail. Hopefully she’ll realize that it’s a battle not worth fighting and leave her tattoo phase to a little later in her life.

Saying “no” to a kid is not fun, but in many cases it’s necessary to do so in order to protect her from making a serious, permanent mistake. It takes guts to parent effectively — it’s often not easy, but if you listen to your child as well as trust your values and instincts, you probably won’t go wrong.

NEXT WEEK: How to squelch sibling squabbles

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.