Sticks and Stones Revisited

We have all heard the old saying – “Sticks and stones might break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

The saying reflects a mistake. Words have just as much power to destroy a person as a slap or a kick.

But even more, hurtful words are often used against those we love and who have loved us the most. We each have a professional face that we present to the world and a private face that is shown to our family and friends. That means those closest to us often see us at our very worst. When we are tired, sick, stressed, or struggling with mental health or addiction, we each have the potential to turn into human monsters – capable of sprouting horns and doing horrific harm.

But it is also wise to remember that we each have done this, at least once in our lives. In fact, books are written on how abusive teen words to parents can be. Further, fear can be the biggest trigger to anger words. A teen fails to come home for hours with no phone call is common, and too often the teen does not understand that while they simply broke curfew, parents are home waiting and worrying, not knowing if their beloved child is safe. While the parent may want to just hug them, often that fear comes across as anger. On the other side, teens and emerging adults are just learning how to have difficult conversations with their peers, and those often do not go well. In an article in USA Today, Jenna Ryu notes.

“Oftentimes, parents stand as placeholders for things teens can't get mad at, like friends or situational inconveniences, and they may not be able to express these emotions in a school environment," she explains. "But if kids feel safety at home – that their parents won't leave – there's a sense of, 'When I'm angry and I unload it, it feels better.' And parents become a safe environment that can handle the anger and hostility.”

Additionally, teens and emerging adults who are struggling with a traumatic event like the loss of a friend (through death or other events) or facing additional stress at home might be struggling with anxiety or depression, which can be difficult to separate from normal teen emotional roller coasters. Because we each hold the capacity to do harm and to be harmed, it is up to us to decide if the relationship is worth the time to work through the anger and frustration. Sometimes, we can find a path to healing on our own, but sometimes it may be time to get help when relationships are stuck in a whirlpool of hurt and recrimination.

To heal, all involved must be willing to stop attacking others and listen as much as they speak.

Adult children, especially millennials and younger adult children, are estranged from their parents at a growing rate. Some of that estrangement is caused by abuse, but the other side is that the advent on technology like cell phones and social media has led to a disintegration of healthy communication techniques. Before cell phones, long distance calls were expensive. Plus, text messages, emails, and social media posts lead to frequent misunderstandings. Some of the disconnect might be healthy, but some feels connected to the reluctance to speak face-to-face, which leads to harmful communication.

One of the hardest and last transitions from a child to an adult is the ability to see our parents as human and accept that they also have flaws and make mistakes.

Parental forgiveness is unconditional, but when a child behaves in a way that harms others, no matter their age, the role of a parent is to make them accept the consequences of their words or actions and seek forgiveness. If only parents ever ask for and receive forgiveness, it assumes that parents are flawed humans but that children are perfect and above basic human qualities. For healing to happen, children must learn to also offer a heartfelt and sincere apology. If they cannot offer that to the people they love, they will treat people outside the family with the same indifference.

Parents are also not mind readers, so children (and especially adult children) must learn to share their truths in ways that do not become weaponized words.

The good news is that humans have the capacity to change and grow as they grow older, so even if some of these lessons were missed before adulthood, we can each choose to adopt healthier communication techniques and improve relationships in our own families.

These include:

  • Using “I” statements, not shame/blame statements that start with “You.” We each have the right to share out truths, but just as we see in political attack ads, when a statement starts with “You” it often is biased or based in partial truths.

  • Letting others have space to talk and for us to listen. If every conversation has one person interrupting to say “No!” to every statement, then the person being interrupted is not being heard. Provide time and space for every person to have an opportunity to speak.

  • Offering heart-open, vulnerable apologies based in our own actions. Too often, we humans like to apologize by saying “I’m sorry, but…” We want to be liked and that desire leads us to try and minimize the impact of our own words or actions.

Apologies should not be qualified with explanations, because too often those explanations serve as a back door to repeat the very words or actions that led to an apology being needed or offered. If you are still in a place where you cannot apologize with a period after the word sorry, then your heart is not yet in a place where you can forgive.

An apology is an action word, not a declarative statement. When we say, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me;” it is a commitment to avoid repeating the same behavior. People experiencing Intimate Partner Violence often reflect on how they would be hit in the morning, and then get flowers in the afternoon, until they come to resent the flowers because they were not sincere, but a band-aid.

Take a step back and reconsider the relationship if you find the only apology you can offer includes a “but….” But also remember that if you have hurt another person deeply and profoundly, the more time you let pass between a heart apology and the harm, the harder it will become to heal the hurt your words might have inflicted. Choices always have consequences.

As humans, it is very easy to point to the flaws in other people and use them to excuse the flaws in ourselves. But there is an absolute universal truth – we are each flawed and sometimes it is our flaws that interact with the world.

  • For healthy communication, people must avoid certainty. Our hearts, bodies, and brains all have the capacity to change. If we live by simply throwing shellac over ourselves and declaring that the person we are at 18 is going to be the same as the person we are at 88, we are insisting that our 18-year-old self knew everything. Healthy communication requires letting go of certainty and coming to a place where we realize that we often only know a small part of the story. This is doubly true when adult children look back certain that they know and understand actions or events. Parents protect their children, especially when they are younger. If we have decided, placed the event or memory in a locked box, and hid it away in a warehouse of boxes, we cannot open that part of our heart to hearing another view or accepting another truth. Certainty destroys healthy communication.

  • Avoid talking when brains are impaired. If someone is using or abusing alcohol or another substance, their brain is altered. They do not have the capacity to think logically or to follow complicated thoughts. While we can walk away from a conversation with someone who is visibly impaired, we must also be willing to admit when we cannot have a healthy conversation and walk away when we are the one impaired.

  • Healthy communication also requires that we keep our commitments. For example, if you are overtired and need sleep and ask for a delay in the conversation until a later time, for the communication to remain healthy it must happen as rescheduled. If one person is always late or never shows up or calls as they scheduled, it causes a complete cessation to communication. If we love one another, ghosting one another to avoid needed conversations – even if those are hard conversations – leads to a game of cat and mouse with one person pursuing the other. If you realize you have been the mouse in a relationship, then to rebuild or fix the relationship, you might need to make amends for the ways you have done harm.

  • Finally, healthy communication requires vulnerability. “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we're all in this together;” says Brene Brown. If we expect others to offer us love, compassion, empathy, and understanding despite our own imperfections, we must also be willing to offer those same things to others. Whether our anger is justified or not is not really the question. If we have all been hurt and hurt others, then we each must be willing to set aside hurts to rebuild trust in the relationship.

The words “I love you” hold great power. So do the words, “I am sorry for how I behaved and how my actions hurt you.” Together, they might be the only words that have the power to push back the hurt that comes with verbal sticks and stones.

People often note the deep divisions in this nation, and wonder how we heal. We have to learn to let go of hurts and grudges against other people and start listening with our hearts. We can start with our personal and intimate relationships.