When children and teens behave in ways that are inappropriate or unhealthy, the word “bad” is often used to describe them. “Bad kids”, “bad behavior”, “being bad”, “don’t be bad”, etc. Although we use those words to help explain good vs. bad or appropriate vs. inappropriate behavior, there are consequences for those words.
Especially during our development, from the time we are small up through our teenager years, the words that are used by others to describe us have a major impact. We absorb the words and sentiments of others. They can eventually become a component of our identities, of our self concepts, of our sense of self worth.
I cringe when I see children who are hyperactive or impulsive treated as if they are completely in charge of their hyperactivity. What a confusing experience that must be! Children are being themselves and responding in a way that comes naturally, and adults around them are telling them that their behavior is bad. The result of that could very easily transition from “I’m being bad” to “I am bad.” Wouldn’t it be much better to call it exactly as it is? An example would be “you’re being hyper right now” or “what you’re doing right now is the wrong thing to do.” Even better, we could help other children to see the behavior as “hyper” or “wrong” as opposed to “bad.”
Teenagers and teenage behaviors can be classic examples of this. We often seen teenagers as mini adults, but they are not. They are not children or adults because they are within their own category. Teenagers are within a unique period of development. Teenagers have had enough time to accumulate experiences and develop their own ideas and understandings, but also lack judgment and knowledge. When some teenagers act out through drug use, sexually risky behavior, or problems in school, it may seem easier to think “that’s a bad kid” because we assume that they are more responsible for their behavior. It’s true; they are more responsible for their behavior than children. However, it is much more accurate and useful to see these actions as unhealthy or in need of help as opposed to bad.
This has nothing to do with helping your own children choose their friends wisely, or providing direct expectations of behavior. This also has nothing to do with condoning behaviors that are unhealthy or inappropriate. My point is that when we see something as bad, we are more likely to stay away from it as opposed to move toward it to help. It is also an oversimplification of the situation.
The words we use matter. Let’s stop stigmatizing behavioral problems. From kids who are hyperactive and have behavioral problems, to teens who are using drugs, their behaviors do not make them bad. Their behaviors may be telling us that they need help. Many kids believe that they are bad because of their behaviors. Feeling or believing that they are bad will cause problems. Let’s modify our language in describing these problems so that the kids and teenagers with the problems will modify their understanding of it as well.
** If you or someone you know has concerns about their child's behavior, contact Aspen Counseling Services to schedule an Initial Assessment.