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When it comes to insults, kids have stepped up their game. You can blame social media or more delicate parenting styles, but this generation knows how to throw some good barbs. But with great power comes great responsibility, and sometimes, when children toss ridicule in the direction of a parent, our feelings can get hurt.

“When [kids] learn that [they] can say whatever [they] want to say, and nothing really comes of it, except for a mother telling you really shouldn’t say that, it’s not severe enough to change behavior,” says psychologist and co-author of The Social Black Belt, Dr. Christopher Cortman.

Then how should a parent respond when a child says heartbreaking things to them?

They’re testing your limits, so set some

While it doesn’t feel good when your children hurl some digs your way, it shows they are developmentally on the right track. When they are growing up, kids test your limits to see how far they can go. 

“It’s important as parents to provide that structure because if you don’t, it’s not in their best interest,” Cortman says. “It’s definitely not in yours.”

Something else you may have noticed about your young ones is that they are astute observers, but while they know how to read the room, they aren’t capable of drawing the proper conclusions about what they are observing. For example, if a kid sees his dad dive headfirst into a pool and his hairpiece falls off, the child, unaware that his dad wears a wig, may conclude that diving headfirst will cause their hair to fall off, too. 

“Kids don’t know until they’re taught,” Cortman says. “It’s up to us to provide a lot of good training for what’s acceptable. You want to give them exactly the amount of help they need so that they can do as much of it on their own.”

Sometimes, they’re saying it because they’re hurting

A child knows the best way to hurt your feelings is to say they hate you. Cortman says what your child is really trying to say is that they hate how they’re feeling at the moment and are in a lot of pain. They don’t actually hate you. Take a deep breath and use the opportunity to discuss what they’re going through. 

“Make sure that your discipline is reasonable,” Cortman says. “Always make it fair. That allows your kid to say, ‘Yeah, that’s a natural consequence of what I did.’ It shouldn’t feel like you’re hitting them with an elephant gun when it’s just a mosquito bite.”

Remember that you’ll get what you give, and vice versa

Families know each other best, and with that familiarity can come a joke or two at someone else’s expense. Cortman doesn’t believe this sets a bad example for children, but it can introduce them to an unspoken social construct.

“You better expect they’ll get back at you,” he adds.

Tell them how you feel

We want to teach our kids to be open with their emotions. However, if they hurt your feelings with an insult or two and you keep those sentiments to yourself, you are not setting a good example. Not only are you missing an opportunity to connect with them, but they are unaware of the consequences of their actions.  

“If you show that you’re bulletproof, you’re not teaching them good things,” Cortman says. “Then they’re just going to up the ante.”

You can also share past examples of when their feelings were hurt by someone else so they can recall what it’s like.(“Do you remember that time when…? That didn’t feel good, did it?”) It can help them develop empathy toward others. Most importantly, keep the lines of communication open despite your feelings so your kids don’t fill in any blanks and assume the worst. Your kid likely didn’t intend to hurt you.

Believe it or not, they’re saying it because they care

Occasionally, kids can cut to the quick with a sharp critique. Maybe they think you drink too much beer or soda, or they’re concerned about your weight or smoking habit. Remember, they’re saying these things because they’re worried about you, not to hurt your feelings. 

However, if you’re concerned about how someone else might take their critiques, Cortman recommends teaching them to know their audience. Show kids to begin with kindness so the recipient understands the intention behind what they have to say. Start with, “I love you so much, and I would never want anything to happen to you, and I’m concerned about….” It will set the tone for what’s coming next.

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