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 kids.
This article outlines how to equip kids to filter what others say and to respond wisely instead of covering hurt feelings with anger. We’ve coached many parents on 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 are the unkind, untrue, hurtful things that others say to us, usually out of their own frustration or discouragement. To make this concrete, write down the hurtful words on a piece of paper, wad up the paper, and throw it in the garbage can. Let the child 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.”
Here is an example:
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 from the Bible to strengthen the confidence of any child upset by harsh words: “Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest.”
Sometimes the things people say are true, even though we don’t like to hear them. Proverbs 27:6a in the Bible 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.
Mixed Trash & Truth
Sometimes trash and truth are mixed together. This might happen if there is helpful truth within something that was overstated or said harshly. For example, “You’re such a baby, you always have a fit when you lose,” and the child fires back with something like, “I am NOT a baby. You’re a baby!”
Here’s how you can help a child separate trash from truth, building confidence and wisdom:
“Hmm. Those were 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. Our best teaching is our example, so we tell our kids about our own growth from criticism.
These are words of encouragement that help us. For example, when someone notices our hard work, or a kindness, or simply reminds us of how loved and valuable we are.
One of our readers told us how she guides her 8-year-old daughter to hang on to “the treasure” when taunted by her siblings. “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 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, we can work with our child to keep heart-strengthening treasures. Together, write treasure statements on slips of paper and put them in a special keepsake box or journal.
Lydia used three-dimensional objects to explain Trash, Truth and Treasure.
- A trash can (worthless things)
- Compost (a source of growth)
- Recycling (something valuable to be saved and used)
We can share with our kids our journey in this area, and celebrate small steps of growth. When kids learn this skill, they learn 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, like sibling conflict, peer pressure, or social media issues. You may even find them being more thoughtful about the words they say to others, including us!