How to Respond When Your Preschooler Calls You Names

Young girl making faces
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Don't be surprised if your preschooler calls you anything from a "stupid-head" to a "doo-doo face." It’s common for 3- and 4-year-old kids to test your reaction by using "potty words" or other phrases they know are naughty.

The way you react to name-calling, however, makes a big difference in how likely your preschooler is to continue the name-calling.

Manage Your Reaction

Although it may be tempting to laugh when your preschooler calls you a silly name, paying too much attention to the name-calling encourages your preschooler to do it again. Similarly, if you get angry and turn it into a big deal, you may also inadvertently encourage the behavior to continue.

Sometimes, ignoring is the best course of action. If you don't show a big reaction, your child may move on and forget the word they tested out.

If your child repeats the word or continues to show disrespect, it's important to intervene. Respond by saying, “I don't like it when you call me names. Please don’t do that again.” Then walk away and focus on something else. This lets your child know that it is an inappropriate word that won’t attract your attention.

Teach Appropriate Ways to Deal with Anger

If your child is hurling insults because they are angry, it's important to teach them new skills. They need to know it's not OK to use words that hurt other people's feelings.

Teach your child a few simple anger management skills. Let them know that feeling angry is okay, but hurting other people is not acceptable.

Help them learn to verbalize their feelings so they can say, "I'm angry," rather than "You're stupid." Kids who can say how they're feeling are less likely to show you that they're mad.

Provide Consequences When Necessary

If your child continues calling you names, or starts calling their siblings names, provide a negative consequence. A brief time-out or removal of privileges may be necessary to help them learn that name-calling is not okay.

It’s important to curb the behavior as soon as possible so your child doesn’t call other children names at school.

Create Rules About Respect

Establish a rule about treating other people kindly. Make it clear that you don’t allow family members to hurt anyone's body and that you also won’t allow hurting anyone’s feelings.

Teach how name-calling hurts people and that it’s not a nice thing to do. Sometimes, even saying the word, “Ouch,” when your child calls you a name can reinforce that it hurts your feelings.

Remind your child of the rules when they call someone names. Say, "We use kind words in our family and those words are not kind."

Catch Your Child Using Kind Words

Encourage your child to use kind words by praising them. Say, “That was so nice of you to tell your sister that her drawing looks good,” or “Thank you for saying you like the sandwich I made for you.”

Praise reinforces good behavior. So the more you praise your child for using appropriate language, the more likely she'll be to keep up the good work.

Role Model Appropriate Language

If you swear or call people names in your everyday language, your child will copy you. It's essential to role model kind and respectful language.

Don't allow name-calling in the house. That includes pets. If you call the dog stupid, your child will begin calling people stupid.

Don’t ever call your child names. Saying things like, “You’re such a brat,” reinforces to your child that it’s okay to call people names (not to mention it can cause some emotional scars). Role model how to use kind words, even when you’re feeling angry and frustrated.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.