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“OUCH! THAT was a putdown!”
“Hey! I was just teasing! You are being oversensitive!”

Have you ever had this conversation with someone? People often make putdowns without realizing the impact because they are “just” joking, expressing an opinion, or teasing.  When someone says something that you experience as hurtful or rude, speaking up takes courage. Speaking up takes the skills of knowing the words to say and how to deal with negative reactions. Finally, speaking up takes wisdom, because there are times when speaking up is a mistake.

What Is A Putdown?

A putdown is an insulting or hurtful remark that “puts down” down a person or group of people by making them seem less worthy. Whether a putdown is directed at themselves or at someone else, young people and adults need to understand that stopping putdowns with their family, friends, colleagues, and classmates is like stopping pollution or littering. It might not always be possible, but it is important to try when we can. If we get mad and start insulting the person who is making the putdown remarks, this is like adding to the pollution. Instead, we can learn to speak up in ways that are both respectful and clear – and to persist in the face of negative reactions.

Common putdowns include laughing, making rude gestures or sounds, mimicking, and saying insulting things that make someone feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, or ashamed – or that are disrespectful to a group of people because of their differences. Putdowns also include making negative remarks about someone behind her or his back for the purpose of getting others to think less of this person. This is different than speaking up about a problem to get help, because the purpose is not to find a solution, but to be hurtful to this person.

Ways to Speak Up

In Kidpower, depending on the nature of the putdown and the ages of our students, responses that we might practice include:

  • “That’s not funny. Please stop.”
  • “That’s an unkind thing to say. I don’t like it.”
  • “That’s not cool.”
  • “What purpose does it serve to say that? It sounds like an insult.”
  • “That’s disrespectful. Please stop.”
  • “That’s prejudice. That’s not acceptable to me.”
  • “That’s a mean thing to do. Stop or I’ll leave.”
  • “That’s bullying. We promised not to do that, and I want to keep our promises.”
  • “That’s dishonorable. You are a better person than that.”

We also help students come up with more complete boundary-setting statements such as, “I understand that you mean no harm – and I feel uncomfortable when you say unkind things about people. Please stop.”

In addition, we acknowledge that there are times NOT to speak up. For example, if a dangerous person is insulting you or others in order to provoke a fight, the best plan is usually just to leave instead of answering back.

Dealing With Common Defensive Reactions To Putdowns

Most people don’t like being told what to do, which is why we prepare our students to persist in speaking up. Common defensive reactions and possible responses include:

The Sense of Humor Reaction: Can’t you take a joke?
Possible Response: I usually appreciate your sense of humor, and that joke sounded unkind. Being hurtful to people is not funny to me.

The Belittling Reaction: You’re overreacting. You’re oversensitive.
Possible Response: Perhaps. All the same, I feel uncomfortable when you make comments like that. Let’s talk about something else instead.

The Innocent Reaction: But this person is not even here. So what does it matter?
Possible Response: I understand that you think it doesn’t matter – and I believe that saying mean things behind someone’s back does not make it less mean – and can harm their reputation.

The Being Factual Reaction: I was just stating my honest opinion. It’s a free country.
Possible Response: You have the right to believe anything you want. And I have the right to ask you to express yourself differently or to talk about something else.  I really believe that, if someone used words like that about you or someone important to you, you would feel upset.

The Being Helpful Reaction: I was just trying to be helpful. Can’t you handle the truth?
Possible Response: I appreciate your intention. However, I do not experience your comments as being helpful. Please talk about something else.

The Blaming Reaction: It’s your fault. I had to say this because you made me mad.
Possible Response:  I am sad that you are angry, and when you say rude things, this is your responsibility.  Please explain why you are unhappy with me using respectful language another time.

The Changing the Subject Reaction: You are really wrong because you ___________ (a completely unrelated complaint.)
Possible Response: I understand that you are unhappy about that. However, it is a different subject. You can tell me about what I said or did that bothered you later. Right now, please stop using disrespectful language.

The Threatening Reaction: I’ll make you sorry that you said that.
Possible Response:  Stop or I’ll leave. Stop or I’ll tell. (Or just leaving and getting help without saying anything further to this person.)

The Denial Reaction: I never said that. That’s not what I meant.
Possible Response: (If there is any possibility that you are wrong) If that is true, then I apologize for believing that you would say something so awful.(If this is something that happens repeatedly) I have a different memory about this than you do. So, does this mean that you agree that that would be an awful thing to say?

Although young people often resist practicing what words to say and how to say them out loud, doing so is usually very empowering and leaves them feeling prepared to set boundaries about putdowns and to persist when someone reacts defensively.

Walking Our Talk About Putdowns

Like me, you might recognize yourself as well as other people in some of defensive reactions described above. Respectful communication takes hard work from everyone involved. If we want to stop young people from using putdowns, we adults must stop making putdowns ourselves. Especially because it is hard, showing children that we can listen respectfully when someone feels insulted by our actions or words is important. We don’t have to agree, but we do need to show that we are willing to understand other points of view.

No matter what our intentions were, if someone is insulted or hurt by something we said or did, we can say, “I am sorry for saying this in a way that was hurtful.” If we were wrong, we can say, “I was wrong. That was a dumb thing for me to say. I am sorry.” If we were expressing a valid concern, we can say, “I did not mean to hurt your feelings. I am sorry. At the same time, I do need to tell you about this problem. Is there a way that I can say it that you will not find insulting?”

Seeing adults apologize for putdowns is tremendously educational for kids!

Adults can tell children as soon as they are old enough to understand, “None of us are perfect, and all of us make mistakes. When someone does not like something that you say or do, it can feel upsetting. Instead of saying something back right away, you can learn to get centered and to listen. Try to ask questions until you can understand why the other person is unhappy with you. Even if you don’t agree, you can say that you are sorry for hurting someone’s feelings.”

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Published: March 9, 2013   |   Last Updated: September 29, 2017

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.