9 Consequences of Name-Calling

teen girl very distressed

Everyone has heard the saying: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." The problem is, this statement is not the least bit true. Name-calling is one of the most damaging and painful types of bullying. It leaves victims with negative messages about who they are. It's also harmful because name-calling attempts to falsely define people.

For instance, calling someone “fat,” “retard,” “nerd,” or any other derogatory name chips away at the target’s self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and self-concept. To make matters worse, name-calling happens a lot and can encourage that behavior in your child.

What Is Name-Calling?

Name-calling is abusive, derogatory language, or insults. It is a form of relational bullying. Sadly, this behavior is common among kids. Name-calling, which is sometimes dismissed as teasing or ribbing, is often present in sibling bullying. However, this type of talk is very hurtful and can harm a child's sense of self.

In fact, 75% of elementary school students say they are called names on a regular basis at school. They also consistently witness students call others words like "stupid" or "spaz" and nearly 50% hear things like "you're so gay" or "that's so gay." Swear words and derogatory euphemisms for body parts are also used.

Meanwhile, frequency is just as bad or worse at the middle school and high school levels with nearly 65% of students indicating that name-calling is a serious issue at their school. Regardless of the names the victim is called, the underlying and repeating messages are "you are not accepted" and “you’re not good enough.” Name-calling can be a form of prejudicial bullying.

Name-calling makes it difficult for victims to trust their perceptions about themselves.

Name-calling hurts in the moment and can have many lasting repercussions. The consequences of name-calling are varied, and can include the following:

Erodes Sense of Self

Over time, name-calling and other insults can slowly eat away at self-esteem and victims will no longer see themselves realistically. For example, if a person is regularly called “fat,” they may view themself as overweight even after they lose weight. This type of distorted body image may set the stage for an eating disorder.

May Compromise Beliefs and Values

When kids are insulted for having certain beliefs or values. This name-calling may cause them to bend to peer pressure and compromise their beliefs in order to escape the bullying. A teen that is called a “goody-goody” or "wimp" may try to shake this image by doing things that go against their belief system as they try to disprove the hurtful words.

Damages Sense of Well-Being

Name-calling can cause noticeable changes in the personality and behavior of those impacted. For instance, teen victims may be more tearful, hostile, or withdrawn. They also may invent excuses to avoid school and lose interest in outside activities. What's more, victims are often dissatisfied with life. They also may struggle with feelings of loneliness and despair.

Affects Identity

When a bully calls another person a name, they are attempting to control how others see the person. For instance, a bully may call someone “stupid.” This name-calling is usually done in front of others and is meant to encourage others to view the person as “stupid” as well. If the name-calling is repeated, over time others, including the target, may begin to associate the word “stupid” with that person. And eventually, that hurtful label can become part of who that person is.

May Lead to Violence

In some cases, bullies who call others names may become violent with their victims. Alternatively, targets of name-calling may act on their anger and frustration by lashing out in a physical way. They also may begin to bully others as well. If your child is being called names at school, bring it to the attention of the teacher or the principal.

Many hate crimes begin with name-calling and escalate to violence. Never ignore name-calling.

Prompts Internal Criticism

Name-calling often leads targets to take on the names as reality. As a result, they begin to criticize themselves. If a person is called a “loser,” their internal voice will learn to call themself a loser as well when they make mistakes. The problem is that this inner voice is hard to switch off and it’s not very objective. Plus, hearing repeated name-calling normalizes this type of communication and can validate the hurtful comments in the child's mind.

Affects Mood

It’s important to remember that sudden changes in mood can sometimes signal that bullying is taking place. Never ignore a child’s changes in mood or write them off as hormonal until you have determined why they appear sullen, angry, or distant.

Changes in behavior, sleeping habits, and moods should always be considered the first warning signs that something is wrong. It is not uncommon for victims of name-calling and other types of bullying to experience anxiety and depression. If your child shows a change in mood, have them evaluated by a doctor right away. 

Harms Mental Health

Name-calling can have serious consequences on mental health. In fact, many researchers feel it is one of the most damaging forms of bullying. For instance, some victims become so depressed from the name-calling that they begin to feel worthless, helpless, and out of control. Some victims may even contemplate suicide. If your child talks about death or wanting to die, do not ignore their comments. Have your child evaluated by a medical professional right away. 

If you or your child are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Compromises Physical Health

Often, when kids are called names their physical health will be impacted. In addition to having trouble eating or sleeping, they also may complain of an upset stomach and headaches. Additionally, some victims may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, ulcers, or other stress-related conditions.

How to Respond to Name-Calling

Name-calling is one of the most painful types of bullying kids can experience. For this reason, it is very important that parents never downplay what their kids are feeling or tell them to just ignore it. Instead, brainstorm with your child about ways they can stand up to the bullying. Sometimes all it takes is a witty comeback or not reacting in-kind. Other times, it will require a meeting with the principal or your child's teacher. The key is to decide together what will work best.

Be sure to consider your child's perspective and personality in how you and they respond as well. Some kids do better with different approaches, such as walking away, asking a teacher for help, or simply commenting that the person is being rude or a bully. It's also important to look at all sides of the situation. Sometimes, it may turn out that your child has also done name-calling (or other misbehavior) to the person doing it to them.

As hard as it may be, consider encouraging compassion for the person bullying your child, as they may be struggling, too.

It may help your child to understand that people often bully due to their own low self-esteem and that the name-calling is usually not about the target but instead a reflection of their own insecurities. If you call-out this truth to your child, you may be able to prevent your child from modeling this behavior in the future, as well.

A Word From Verywell

It is hard to hear that your child has been targeted by name-calling (or that they are the one doing the bullying), but once you know, you can help. Acknowledging what is happening and taking it seriously is usually a big relief to kids who sometimes may fear that adults will blame them or right off the behavior as not a big deal. Letting your child know that they are important and valued and teaching them effective ways to respond are other effective ways to help.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Prevention: Teach kids how to identify bullying and how to stand up to it safely.

  2. Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. How does bullying affect health and well-being?.

  3. Wolke D, Lereya ST. Long-term effects of bullyingArch Dis Child. 2015;100(9):879-885. doi:10.1136/archdischild-2014-306667

  4. Nicolosi E, Medina R, Riley C, McNeally P. Crowdsourcing sensitive VGI: Constructing the hate incident reporting systemDigital Geography Society. 2020;1:100003. doi:10.1016/j.diggeo.2020.100003

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.