In Bullying Definitions, Bullying Facts

Creating Change Around Name Calling

Name Calling

Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.” Some version of that phrase is often first heard sometime during childhood, at least in English-speaking homes. Although scholars seem to disagree about its origin, whether nursery rhyme or slave-created proverb, it has been traced back to at least the 19th century. Some speculate it may have roots in English civil law which rules that insulting words are no justification for retaliatory violence unless they include an actual physical threat. But what about Name Calling?

In reality sticks and stones CAN break your bones, and name calling, along with more severe verbal abuse, CAN in fact, break your spirit as well as incite further violence and abuse. This article will help you to understand and to address the issues raised by name-calling bullying. You may be a parent, teacher, or other concerned adult wanting to help either the victim of such behavior and/or the perpetrator, as well striving toward the even greater goal of improving social climate for that child’s school or neighborhood. Especially if it is repeated and ongoing occurrence, name-calling should not be simply ignored – nor should a child be advised to do so in such situations.

Definitions Of Name Calling

  • Here is a simple and direct name-calling definition: “the act of saying insulting things to or about someone;” or “the act of using offensive names to insult someone.” Scholar J. Vernon Jensen says it is “attaching to a person, group, institution, or concept a label with a heavily derogatory connotation. It usually is an incomplete, unfair, and misleading characterization” (Ethical Issues in the Communication Process, 1997).
  • Its definition within the adult political realm is more particular: “the use of abusive names to belittle or humiliate another person in a political campaign, an argument, etc,” (Random House Dictionary,© Random House, Inc. 2014) or “ the use of offensive names especially to win an argument or to induce rejection or condemnation (as of a person or project) without objective consideration of the facts.” (MacMillian dictionary)

Humans Using Names And Labels

The origin and practice of calling other human beings by names ceremonially given in infancy is lost in the mists of prehistory. Nearly as ancient is the habit of calling our loved ones by nick-names, or terms of endearment. Very often such labels are sweet or cute – and generic: for example, honey, sweetheart, baby, pumpkin, and so forth. But sometimes, as our children grow and become more mischievous and daring, pet names can take a subtle turn toward being more descriptive and sometimes even tinged with sarcasm: imp, hellion, or rascal come to mind. In some family situations, it is not a very great leap to move into the realm of verbal abuse without realizing it: tubby, slowpoke, and stupid are a few of the milder labels that sometimes occur within family settings. That is to say, name-calling can be learned and reinforced in a home environment at an early age. It can be endearing and descriptive and well-received; or it can cross the line into being annoying, inaccurate, and even verbally abusive. Children can grow up using derogatory or abusive terms for other people without even realizing or being taught the offensive nature of doing so.

The situation of learning to use nasty names for others can be more insidious and harmful to the social fabric when it represents the inheritance of a prejudice or hatred toward a particular group of people. This may be based on race, religion, sexual preference, class, ethnicity, or any other source of “Otherness” that human beings can dream up. A child who grows up hearing derogatory names regularly applied to one of the “Other” groups will most likely turn into an adult who continues to have and to verbally express those biases. We will say more about this particular kind of name-calling later in this article.

Why Are You Reading This?

This article may provide help and inspiration for many different kinds of people:

  • Perhaps you are (or were) yourself a victim of name calling bullying and you are looking either for current solutions to your concerns and/or an understanding of past events that may still have a grip and a negative influence on you.
  • Perhaps you are a parent or guardian of a minor child who has been the victim of name-calling and you are looking for advice and strategies for addressing and relieving the circumstances
  • Perhaps you are a parent or guardian of a minor child who has been the bully, the one using name-calling as a tactic and you are hoping to find ways to help that child recognize the need to change and adapt new behaviors.
  • You might be a teacher, school administrator, camp counselor, or scout leader: anyone adult who works as a leader among children and wants to gain understanding and find ways to work toward positive change
  • You may even be “just” a member of the broader society who knows that bullying is a very real and present danger in our society, and you want to be part of the ever-broadening effort to make our society kinder and gentler.
  • You may be a professional or a researcher hoping to collect as much helpful information online as you can.

Rooted In Personal Experience

All of us have most likely had some brush with name calling behavior, whether as “victim”, “perpetrator”, or “observer/helper.” Before getting deeper into our discussion about name-calling and its relationship to bullying, it is necessary to realize that we are dealing with the realm of emotion and not reason.

We invite you to think back to your own earliest memories so that you can be more closely in touch with those feelings. Try to remember names that you have been called. First to mind will most likely be the nicknames or pet names that your family had for you as a small child. They may have been based on your given name, like Junior or Jackie, or on some physical characteristic like Dimples, Red, or Skippy. Savor for a moment what is hopefully a happy memory, perhaps accompanied by the sound of your mother’s or father’s voice.

Now shift focus a bit and reach back for the first time you heard that voice saying mean things, applying unkind or judgmental words to someone else or perhaps even to you. You are stupid! You are so slow! You are self-centered See if you can remember the first time someone insulted you with a label of that kind. What did they call you? How did you feel?

Name-calling happens in the territory of raw emotion, the world as ruled by that part of your brain which predates human life forms: the amygdale. It processes the kind of raw emotions necessary to our ancestors’ survival: fight or flight and stress. In that world of raw emotion, insults directed at others may even be part of a survival instinct. It is not a carefully-through through, reasonable description.

Why Do Human Beings Resort To Name-Calling And Insults

  • It is almost always comes from some emotion that is out of control in the perpetrator
  • It can be an attempt to assert personal power over a situation even if the perpetrator is actually feeling weak or uncertain of him/herself.
  • It can be a way of excluding others before being excluded oneself.
  • It may be a matter of unselfconsciously copying/mimicking behavior seen or learned elsewhere, especially in the family
  • It may be a not-so-indirect echo of learned prejudices about race or class or gender orientation.
  • In more rare circumstances, it may be symptomatic of severe mental health issues in the perpetrator, creating behavior that is beyond the control of that person’s rational mind.

Now that we understand a little more about the behavior of “name-calling” and other similar emotion-laden verbal abuse, coming from one or more variable sources in the head of the perpetrator, it’s time to look at its effects in its victims.

Effects On The Victims Who Have Been Called Names

There are a wide variety of negative effects name-calling can cause:

  • Lowering of self-esteem
  • Withdrawal from normal social relationships
  • Self-fulfilling prophetic effect: becoming “fat” or “dumb”
  • In the worst cases, suicidal ideation or action

Do You Suspect Your Child Is Being Abused But Has Not Told You About It?

Be on the look-out for non-verbal cues that may indicate a problem:

  • Coming home from school or play crying or with red eyes
  • A change in eating habits
  • Making excuses not to go to school
  • Acting out of character
  • Avoids playing outside alone
  • Has trouble sleeping
  • Feels helpless or guilty

How To Help The “Victims” Strategize Solutions For Health And Healing

  • First, create a safe space for the victim to express their own feelings of hurt, fear, or vulnerability. This could mean talking freely and privately with a caring adult; therapeutic play; or for older children, writing.
  • When the “victim” seems to have exhausted the expressions of their own emotions, then it may be the right time for you to talk
  • Assure them of your love and/or support no matter what and affirm them for you they are, what they have learned, what they can do.
  • Move slowly into a more reason-based discussion, first explaining that they may have become a target of this bully for no particular reason, that the real problem lies with the perpetrator and not with them
  • Brainstorm with them ways in which they can respond individually to create positive change in the dynamics of the situation
  • Consider ways in which the entire social environment can be changed, creating school programs, for example. As if the “victim” would like to participate in creating such an event.
  • Seek professional counseling or medical help for the victim if needed

Creating An Affirming, Positive Environment

  • This begins with creating a positive affirmative environment at home
  • Individually affirm the child as often as possible for something well done, whether it be a chore or an academic/artistic success
  • Encourage hobbies or talents in music, art, athletics
  • Work toward a harmonious home environment starting with yourself: monitor your own language for verbal abuse or sarcasm
  • Learn to resolve conflicts in a peaceful, rational way
  • Consider helping a wider social group (for example, a school or church group) respond collectively to bullying through programs or organizations.

Resources For Conflict Resolution Skill Building

What Is Not Helpful

  • Never suggest retaliatory violence
  • Do not suggest that the victim simply “ignore” or “stand above” the abuse if it occurs more than once, especially by quoting the tired old aphorism “sticks and stones”
  • Do not suggest any emotionally reactive or escalating response

What If Verbal Abuse Escalates Into Physical Violence

  • Hopefully, the victim will share what has happened with a “safe” adult
  • If medical help or evaluation is needed, get it as soon as possible
  • Ask the medical personnel if psychological counseling is needed and consider asking for a referral, if needed
  • Determine if the identity of the offender is known
  • Report incident to any relevant institutions: for example, a school or recreational facility in which both children participate and ask how that institution intends to respond

Name Calling Beyond The Individual

All too often, name calling can begin with a learned behavior of bias against a certain group of people. The most obvious example is racial slurring. Although significant social progress has been made since the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960’s, racism is still alive and well in the United States. The first steps toward serious bigotry and even violence begin in childhood, when a child uses a derogatory term for another child. This labeling may include anything from the most obvious: “nigger” or “hoe” to slightly more subtle comments about hair, facial features, intelligence, or social class.

In the wonderful multiculturalism now underway in the U.S., it is not only people of African or African-American background who are vulnerable to such attacks. Almost every immigrant group, religious group, ethnic group and language group (to mention just a few measures of diversity – there are many more) have labels and derogatory names with which they are sometimes branded. You have all heard them, and there is no good reason to print an exhaustive list for purposes of this article.

If a child comes to you, however, and reports that particular kind of name-calling as part of an attack, begin with the steps as described above in HOW TO HELP THE VICTIMS STRATEGIZE SOLUTIONS. When it is time for you to talk and reason with the victim, explain in age-appropriate terms the existence of racism and what it looks like. Point out that they were targeted not for anything about their own characteristics, but because they look or speak in a particular way. Tell them you will be in contact with other adults who may be able to help. Your first contact ought to be with the school or other institution to which you can report the incident. If it is not considered to be a problem severe enough to warrant intervention, you can inquire about what programs the school has to address issues of multiculturalism and diversity. And if the answer is “none”, you have your work cut out for you!

Gender Identity

Another huge and very difficult to pinpoint is name-calling around the issue of gender identity. Older elementary school children and young teens have already begun developing gender identities, but when they reach the period of puberty these questions and concerns become paramount in their sense of self. If they have questions or concerns about their identity, whether or not they may be homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual is a very major part of their adolescent struggle. Being called names implying one thing or the other is not only immediately hurtful but also damaging to the processes of forming an identity. There are tens of thousands if not millions of teenagers who are in this situation.

The fortunate minority have an empathetic and supportive adult or two to help them through, whether or not that person is a parent. Another misfortunate minority have parents or guardians who force them into a “reorientation programs” in an attempt to “reform” their behavior and identity. Many more are muddling along in the middle; and it doesn’t take much to send them into a descending spiral of low self-esteem, depression and despair, and even suicidal thoughts or action.

And one of the triggers, not surprisingly, is being bullied by name-calling.

There are now many organizations that help such GLBTQ teens with counseling, housing and alternative activities. A good place to start is with GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) which has extensive on-line resources and suggested programming. In particular, they have created a school program called “No Name Calling Week” which has been in operation of hundreds of schools since 2010.

An Alternative View

Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D, presents an interesting alternative viewpoint about name-calling in an article called “Sticks and Stones: Four causes for name-calling and four critical interventions.”

She begins by noting that “name-calling” among adults has multiple reasons for existing, some of which may even be considered semi-legitimate, such as in political ad campaigns. But when that behavior occurs in children, we just want it to stop without seeking to understand. Pointing out that name-calling of some sort has always existed, and most likely always will (at least in its positive forms.) Instead Bailey would like us to think about why children do this, and what new skills we might teach to help them express feelings that are otherwise forbidden.

Using development and brain research, she has identified four types of name-calling and four kinds of strategies to transform them into more humane social and emotional skills. Here are the four causes as she sees them:

adult modeling; inability to manage emotions; bonding; and aggression

Adult Modeling

As we have said above, children learn name-calling from adults. Sometimes these are terms of endearment, but sometimes they are intended to shape or direct behavior. Sometimes they are complaints directed toward someone who may not even be able to hear – for instance another driver in another car – but children riding IN the car are perfectly aware of the driving adult’s frustration. They learn that name-calling is one way to deal with the world when it’s not going your way.

The solution? Adults as models must learn new ways of handling their own frustration and disappointment if we hope to change our children’s behavior.

Inability To Manage Emotions

Children are in the process of learning to be human adults. Sometimes due to their age, adult models in their life, or even just basic temperament they may choose to call others hurtful names. From an adult standpoint it may look like meanness or lack of kindness. But perhaps these children have simply not yet learned self-control or the skills to express themselves appropriately.

The solution is to help children learn how to recognize their strong emotions, to think about what outcome they had desired, and finally to teach an appropriate skill to handle the emotion or to solve the problem. When you repeat this new language pattern again and again, your child will ultimately learn to express his disappointment in more socially acceptable ways.


The third source of name-calling is not necessarily negative. It is the sometimes a clumsy attempt to build belonging in a group of children who may call themselves by a particular label: jocks, geeks, etc. Although this may create a sense of belonging for the children inside the group, it can also be a means of exclusion. This kind of name calling CAN be hurtful when it is used to keep others out, especially common among middle-school girls.

The solution is to slowly begin to change the culture of the school or other institutional environment through adult modeling and teaching new skills and strategies. If discipline is always about “good” and “bad” behavior, it will be an external system of judgment that will always divide the children into two camps. Much better to develop internal motivation to work together based on safety and connection and problem solving, then name-calling will effectively disappear in favor of this inclusive, cooperative climate.


Bailey’s last cause for children’s behavior of name-calling is one we tend to think of first: to intentionally hurt one another. If a child has no higher order of skill in resolving conflicts and problems, this is the go-to technique and the most often recognized by intervening adults.

Some children can let names roll right off their backs without a care, while others recoil in deep pain. If they are able to see the aggressive child as an attention getter and not a serious threat to themselves, then children may be able to ignore it. If, on the other hand, the child believes the label could be true about themselves, they may feel hurt. This is important for caring adults to understand. If children are deeply hurt by a particular label, it can have multiple damaging effects as described above. The caring adult needs to help them to bring about their own healing.

Most importantly, however, Bailey says that we need to change our perceptions AND our labels. Just using the terms “victim” and “perpetrator or aggressor” is inappropriate when, in fact, the interaction is often a call for help from both parties. “The “victim” is calling for help in the sense that he does not know how to handle such aggression and needs to learn to be assertive and stand up for himself. The “aggressor” is calling for help in the sense that she does not know a better way to resolve conflict. Both children are missing essential social skills needed for the rest of their lives,” writes Bailey.

In Conclusion

Bailey concludes that “Name-calling is a systemic issue in our society. Whether a child’s name-calling stems from adult modeling, an inability to manage emotions, efforts to bond, aggression or a combination of these factors, adults can take real and tangible steps toward teaching children a better way to express themselves. My hope is that we will move past our attempts at quick fixes and consciously do the work required to transform name-calling into healthy, social-emotional skills. As with any major change, the change begins within us and extends outward to those in our care.”

Requiring Help And More Help

If you have read this far and observed all the gathered wisdom up to this point, you may also begin to wonder if you have a more difficult or needy situation on your hands than has already been described. As we have increasingly learned in the past couple of decades, there are children who have severe mental or emotional disabilities that may call for more help than the teacher, counselor or even parent can provide. To return momentarily to the traditional description this may be true of either the “victim” or the “perpetrator.” For example, a victim may have lost so much self-esteem that some serious mental health disorders may be triggered, such as eating disorders, depression, and even suicidal ideation. Such difficulties really require professional help.

It may be less obvious – or even less desirable – to consider whether the perpetrator has simply learned bad coping behavior from his/her childhood (modeling adults) which can be modified and improved by teaching more helpful skills in a school environment. It may be that some of the aggressive behavior may be due to a condition suffered by the child who is in desperate need of treatment. This can range from outbursts due to a condition like Tourette’s syndrome, to early diagnosis of bipolar disorder, personality disorders, or even sociopathic indications. Although the “victim” may be greatly suffering from verbal abuse, the “perpetrator” may be acting out an even more desperate condition needing urgent treatment.

Working Together To Create A Kinder, Gentler World

In conclusion, as adults concerned about name calling bullying and other verbally abusive behavior, we would do best to begin by changing ourselves, as Becky Bailey, Ph.D, suggests. Let us monitor our own behavior and our own speech – spoken and written – for instances of name calling throughout the day. By no means does this mean we should ignore aggression or resolve conflict by being passive. It does mean that we should move away from the emotion-laden, amygdale-driven reactions into the world of reason and conscious conflict-resolution techniques which we can learn. Taking this step cannot help but benefit the children in our lives.

Secondly, we can work on creating an affirming, nurturing, and safe environment in which those children can thrive. We can do this first of all within our own homes and in the relationships between the children there. And we can attempt to help our schools, clubs, camps, and other institutions intended to do the same, suggesting resources and/or offering direct help.

Finally, we can join in others’ efforts to create curricula, programming, educational models, and resources in creating new environments for children. Creating events that educate and model. The “No Name-Calling Week” begun by GSGEN mentioned earlier is a perfect example, but there are many other efforts both nationally and locally, sometimes even created by children themselves.

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