Put-Down and Trash-Talk Strategies

It’s not funny. Do not allow trash talking and put-downs, or teasing of other kids, no matter how funny it may appear in the moment.

Don’t let it slide. Talk to your children. Affirm their great efforts to resist put-downs and trash talk. Timing is crucial; wait until there is a good receptive moment to bring it up.

Family values trump team values—every time. There should be no separation between what a kid does out on a playing field—like trash talking—and what you value as a family. So you can say to your child, “We just don’t do that.”

No middle ground. We, as the adults in our kids’ lives, are either part of the problem or part of the solution. The research of Dan Olweus, one of the most respected sociologists in the field of bullying research, shows that unless we interrupt putdowns right when we hear them, the kids making them presume two things: The adult who overheard is on our side, and the adult is giving permission to escalate the behavior.

Strategy One: Crossing the Line—Accountability without Blame

How many times have we heard a kid say, “But I was only joking around!” Often something may start of kind of funny, but it can easily escalate into something hurtful to another child. Seldom does anyone mean to be mean, but the fact is that it happens.

An effective way of improving your kid’s social relationships with others and freeing him up to concentrate on having fun and getting better at his game is to proactively work out the difference between “having fun” and “creating fear.”

Here’s what the exercise looks like:

  1. Sit down with your child and tell him that you want to help him have the most fun possible in the game, and that you understand that “joking around” can often go too far. Maybe tell him about times in your own life when you crossed the line without meaning it.
  2. Ask your child to finish the following sentence in as many ways as possible. (You can then refer back to this when something gets a little edgy and you need to talk.) “Joking around crosses the line and becomes a put-down when . . .” For example, (1) when someone asks for you to stop and you don’t; (2) when you see that you have offended someone.

Strategy Two: Preview and Review—Sweat the Small Stuff

Seldom does a one-off talk with your child change behavior. Just as a healthy body needs regular moderate exercise, so does healthy social behavior.

Preview. If your child is struggling with put-downs and yet deep down you know that speaking and acting this way is not who she really is, chances are she knows it, too. If you have had a good talk with her and used the “Crossing the Line” strategy, take a brief moment before your daughter goes into the game or the practice and remind her of what she has told you about “the line.” Assure her that you believe in her and know she will do her best not to dis and use put-downs.

You might say, “Justine, come over here for a second. Remember that thing about trash talking? Remember what we said? Joking around crosses the line and becomes trash talking when it deliberately points out another person’s weakness. Have a great game, but keep this in mind. I know you can do it.” Say it lightly but mean it.

Review. When you are in the car on the way home after practice or a game, take the opportunity to say, “So Justine, how did it go with ‘the line’ tonight? When did you get close?” Be as interested in when the line was close or even crossed as you are in successes. No judgment and no cross examination. If we get the response “OK,” we usually say, “Great, what was particularly OK? When did you get close to the line?” We like to think of this as being a big heart with ears.

Strategy Three: Disapprove–Affirm–Discover–Do Over (DADD)

An everyday tool for working with children’s arguments, putdowns, and trash talk, this strategy can be used to deal with a simple clash between children, or when a put-down has taken place at training or in a game. It can be used over the space of days when the issue is more complex. The aim of learning this strategy is that when the children need help, you will be able to intervene with quiet confidence without seeming to be on anybody’s side. That way, you avoid a defensive reaction. Because only one out of every ten put-downs is actually witnessed by adults, it’s important to speak up when the opportunity presents itself. When we remain silent, we implicitly condone the behaviors we witness.

Disapprove. First, begin by expressing clear disapproval for the action: “It is hurtful to behave as you did. We don’t speak that way in our family/team.” Speak with quiet directness. Mean it.

Affirm. We know that we are supposed to separate a child’s actions from his/her whole being, but it’s not always easy. To achieve this, your disapproval needs to be followed up right away by an affirmation: “You hardly ever speak like that. So often you say helpful things.”

Discover. Later, when the time is right, find out what the underlying issue is. “What’s up? Something must be bothering you.” Or, “Okay, I get it. It’s hard not to do it because everybody seems to speak like this.” “is question must come at the right time to elicit an honest response.

Do over. Finally, when the issue is clarified, you can help the child to do it over. “Let’s work out a way you can be a part of the game without speaking that way,” or “What are the ways you can be a part of the good stuff but not join in with the put-downs?”

Considering your child’s temperament is the last and very important component to this new regime, if it is to work for a particular child. Timing is all important in DADD practice, and there are few better ways to get this right than to know your child’s temperament. If you’re unsure, try asking yourself, “Which of the following temperaments best describes my child?”

The strong/choleric (ambitious, assertive, prone to mood swings) needs to be spoken to away from friends and usually after he has calmed down. Key words: defer, deflect until you can be direct.

The sensitive/melancholic (introverted, thoughtful, self-reliant, perfectionist) needs to be spoken to with an understanding of the vulnerability she often experiences. Key words: safety, empathy with quiet accountability.

The easygoing/phlegmatic (relaxed, calm, sluggish, passive- aggressive) can become very stubborn if he feels his side has not been heard. Don’t take him by surprise. Let him know, for example, that when you are home, you will want to understand why he is speaking in that way. Key words: fairness and timing.

The flighty/sanguine (impulsive, pleasure seeking, charismatic, forgetful) needs to be tackled right there and then. If you don’t, she will wonder what you are bothering about ten minutes later. Key words: implications of actions.

From Kim John Payne, Luis Fernando Llosa, & Scott Lancaster. Beyond Winnning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (Lyons Press, Connecticut, 2013)


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