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Can I say it if I need help?

Most kids have been told by their adults not to say or repeat offensive words that they may have read or heard someone else say.

Being the target of, or witnessing, hate speech, threats, or other offensive language at any age can be upsetting, stressful, and scary. At Kidpower, we believe that anyone who has experienced verbal aggression deserves to get help so they can regain a sense of safety and confidence.

Sadly, many kids who have been the target of threats or offensive language in the real world or online – including in social media or gaming – don’t even consider speaking up to their adults to get help. Many factors, like fear of retaliation, might stop a kid from talking to adults to get help. One of those many factors can be that they have internalized a message about offensive words that they’ve heard so often from so many adults: “We don’t say those words here.”

If I can’t say the offensive words I heard or read, how can I tell my adults what happened?

In this article, we’re taking a closer look at this specific obstacle to consider how adults can uphold strong boundaries about respectful language without accidentally closing the door to important adult/child communication about safety problems.

When kids hear the statement ‘we don’t say those words here’, it’s easy for them to get the message, especially if they are very young and are literal thinkers, that simply to say a certain word is to be bad – or even to be unworthy of belonging.

If kids are upset because they have been targets of offensive language, or if they are upset because they have used offensive language themselves and ended up feeling uncomfortable later, they are safer if they can get help from their adults. If they don’t know how to talk about this kind of problem and so don’t get help, they can end up feeling scared, ashamed, and alone. This inability to discuss what happened can create emotional distance between kids and the very adults who truly want to help them.

At Kidpower, we believe that most adults who say ‘we don’t say those words here’ don’t mean to communicate that kids are not allowed to talk openly and honestly with their adults about their experiences in order to get help when they feel troubled. Unfortunately, sometimes adults with the best of intentions and a deep commitment to safety can accidentally create this misunderstanding – and the misunderstanding creates a safety gap for kids.

This misunderstanding can take root when adults make rules about offensive words but do not teach the difference between using offensive language and talking about offensive language with adults kids trust to get help when they feel troubled or confused and to practice ways to be safe.

Teach the difference between Using offensive language and Talking About offensive language to get help.

Here are some specific examples about how to see and explain this distinction. Pretend the word BLANK is any word that is against the rules for you as an adult in charge. Imagine a kid says to you, “I’m not going clean up my mess, you BLANK!” As the adult in charge, will you point out that using language this way to express feelings is not okay with you? Will you require this young person to practice giving a respectful message instead? Most likely! Adults in charge need to set clear boundaries about offensive language and to uphold values about respectful communication.

Now, imagine the same child says to you, “I feel scared. Older kids followed me home from school. They called me BLANK and said they’ll be looking for me. I don’t feel safe. Please help me.” Should this kid be told it is wrong to say ‘BLANK’ in this situation? Almost all adults will say, “Of course not! We’ll help them! We want kids to talk to us about what happens to them, especially when they’re scared!”

As caring adults, when the young people in our lives feel unsafe, we want to know the whole story – even if it’s difficult to hear – because their safety is important to us and because it’s hard to understand a problem and give good guidance if we don’t know the whole story.

At any age, it’s hard tell the ‘whole story’ to get help if the ‘whole story’ includes words ‘we don’t say here.’ It’s even harder if those words have gotten tangled up with feelings of isolation and shame.

If you want young people to feel safe talking to you about the words they hear and read in the real world or online, you can take the lead in creating ways of talking with children and teens about offensive language in your home, class, or group that teaches the difference between using offensive language and talking about offensive language with adults kids trust to get help and be safe.

We encourage all adults to set and uphold clear, strong boundaries about offensive language. Interestingly, what is considered ‘offensive’ varies from group to group, such as from school to home. You’ll need to be specific about what counts as offensive in your space. You’ll also be in a stronger position to communicate these boundaries if you can say the actual words rather than avoiding them or hinting at them.

This calm, confident modeling also helps young people learn the difference between using words and talking about words with adults they trust to get help and be safe. When adults will not say certain words even when they are giving guidance about safety, it’s even harder for children to learn how to say the words to get help in safety situations, and the hurting power of the words can grow.

Your boundaries about offensive language will be more likely to support safety if you make them about how a word is used, not about place or about the ‘saying’ itself.

“We don’t say that word in our school” is a statement about a place – the school. It’s true that a school might have different boundaries about words we can use than the family has at home, and this distinction is important.

The problem is that a young person who is a literal thinker might logically interpret this as meaning they cannot say the word at all – even to get help – or cannot talk to you on campus about a safety problem involving offensive words.

Most adults tell us this is NOT what they mean. If hate language, threats, and identity attacks are being used at lunch or in the halls, adults need to know it’s happening so they can help fix the problem.

A small change in word choice can help avoid this misunderstanding. “We don’t call people that word” is a statement about how a word is used, not about the place, and it avoids the word ‘say’.

“Swearing is against the rules” also states a boundary without using the more problematic word ‘say’. Over time, you can help kids learn that “swearing” is the act of using certain words for the purpose of expression.

Saying to an adult, “Kids are calling me BLANK” is not ‘swearing’. It’s telling the full story to get help to be safe. Telling an adult, “Kids are swearing on the playground, using the words BLANK and BLANK, and I’m feeling scared” is also not ‘swearing’. Openly, honestly, and thoroughly describing a problem to an adult they trust in order to get help with safety can be hard, and it’s an important safety skill at all ages. Kids are safer when they know that this is not against the rules.

Adults are also responsible for teaching kids how to speak up – and practicing the skills so they’re confident kids understand. Running into a classroom after recess and yelling out, “Kids are calling me BLANK!” will probably make problems bigger. Calmly approaching a teacher and saying, “Excuse me, I have a safety problem. It’s about hurtful words,” is different. An adult might then say, “Let me get the rest of the group settled, and then I’ll be ready to listen and help.”

Ongoing conversations between kids and their responsible adults about different situations when people might ‘say’ offensive words can help young people build an understanding of how context can make a difference in communication. It’s usually not the ‘saying’ itself that’s the problem – usually, it’s the context. Examples can include:

  • to threaten – not okay
  • to label or objectify someone – not okay
  • to tease and joke – varies in groups and friendships. Always risky in relationship because words can cut so quickly. Not okay if you are in a place led by an adult in charge who is not okay with it.
  • to dramatize a story – varies. Might be okay in your home but not in your school. Check First with the adult in charge.
  • to tell an adult you trust the truth about offensive words being directed at you – kids are safer if they know this is okay.
  • to ask an adult they trust about the meaning of a word – kids are safer if they know it is okay to ask! It’s less safe to turn to peers for this learning. It’s also less safe for kids to repeat a word they don’t truly understand – and that might be loaded with an offensive meaning they never suspected.
  • to talk with adults they trust about specific offensive words and how they relate to emotional triggers and safety – young people are safest when they can talk with their adults about anything that makes them or others confused or uncomfortable.
  • to practice emotional safety skills with their responsible adults – such as how to filter hurtful words and take charge of emotional triggers. Kids are safer if they have opportunities to practice this with their adults.
  • for adults in charge: to say a word calmly to communicate and uphold boundaries about safety – never to threaten, to label, or to objectify anyone, including yourself. Possible example: ‘When you were playing, you called him BLANK. You were both laughing, and he didn’t act upset, but that word has a hurtful and offensive meaning. Using it in play [to express feelings…to describe others… etc] is not okay here. It is against our rules and our boundaries.”
  • for adults in charge: to lead safety skills practice – such as by saying, “I understand it can feel upsetting when kids call you BLANK. Let’s practice protecting your feelings. Get your Kidpower Trash Can ready. Pretend I’m that kid and I said, ‘You’re a BLANK’ – Catch that word. Throw it away. Put your hand on your heart. Say, ‘I’m valuable.’ Great job! Any remember that anytime someone uses words to hurt you or others, it is important that the adults in charge know what happened.”

When families and groups develop ways of talking about offensive language in ways that feel positive, supportive, and respectful, this can strengthen their communication and their connection with each other and deepen their understanding of the power of words as well as the power each of us have to use words responsibly; to protect ourselves; and to take charge of our safety. Adult leaders often say this kind of communication helps them be even more effective in upholding clear boundaries about offensive language.

As you talk and practice skills related to safety with words with the kids in your care, please remember that they need skills to get help from adults other than you who may not have the same comfort level and skill that you have talking with young people about safety and offensive words.

Adults, like kids, can get triggered by words. Approaching an adult and saying, “Someone called me a BLANK and I don’t feel safe” is likely to trigger the adult who then might focus on the offensive word – “WHAT did you just say??” – rather than on the important message: the child does not feel safe.

In Kidpower workshops for older kids and teens, we often coach kids to practice saying the following to adults they know, such as teachers or coaches, to get help. You can coach kids in your life to practice saying this message out loud: “Excuse me, I need help. Kids threatened me. I don’t feel safe. The words are against the rules. Do I have permission to tell you the truth?”

In our experience, most adults are VERY interested in what comes next! And, they are less likely to get triggered – and more likely to help.

Building an understanding of different ways words can be used takes time and communication with caring adults. Investing the time is likely to support stronger communication and safety in your family, class, or group. When children and teens can talk about different words and how their meanings and impacts change based on different contexts, they will be more likely to consider speaking up to get help when they need it, and the words themselves can start to lose their power to escalate or to trigger upset. These skills help to create a safer and more respectful environment for everyone.

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Published: January 4, 2017   |   Last Updated: April 11, 2017

Erika Leonard manages our California center, trains and mentors instructors, and is a Kidpower Senior Program Leader.