Stress Talking


Everyone’s heard of Trash Talking which is a competition between opponents usually in sports events as to who can brag the most or put down each other’s abilities. It’s usually meant to be intimidating so that the other person gets off their game. But it seems there’s a little known phenomenon which we’ll call “Stress Talking” that frequently happens in families. Stress talking involves putting someone else down whether directly or indirectly and involves that word which everyone runs from; stress. The “stress talker” may do this because of their own stress or may have little understanding that their “talking” creates stress in the recipient. It can take many forms and originates in many different sources. In its extreme forms, it escalates into verbal abuse and/or bullying behavior.

In some families, this type of communication may not start out with the intention of putting anyone down. Family members may tease each other or use humor to draw attention to what they like or dislike or to make each other feel comfortable in their space. Sibling rivalry may up the ante to sarcasm or negative comparisons as they jostle for parental attention or rewards. One member may become the jokester much like the class clown who uses humor to hide his/her insecurity or to deflect focus from family conflict or dysfunction. However, in other families, each generation of parents or their parents before them, see no problem in name calling like “ Idiot” or “ Dumb” or using all types of profanity from naming body parts to female animals as substitutes for a comma, a noun or adjective. It’s just the way they talk to each other!

The way we talk to each other in a family is exactly why we have to pay attention. Communication is about giving/sending information or a message which is received by the recipient who then absorbs it before responding. Talking, speaking or signing   [as in gestures or sign language] is how that message is sent. The same message can mean one thing to one child but a totally different thing to the other child yet they grow up in the same house with the same parents. Unfortunately, children with their still limited brain development may interpret the message in a way that was never intended. If they’re used to being called names or lectured constantly without space for their own identity to grow then this may set them up to think it’s normal to be picked on by the neighborhood bully or picked apart by their first teenage crush. If everyone is Dad’s verbal punching bag, they may learn to hide through isolation, escape into substance use or defend themselves by becoming that bully. Is the way our family talks to each other creating “a hostile environment” of stress which attacks our children’s self-esteem and confidence from the inside out?

A few days ago I calmly told my son to grab a plate to place his muffin on. I’d just finished cleaning our house from top to bottom in preparation for our guests who would come later. It was the only time I had in which to get the house cleaning done as well as the laundry and grocery shopping for our party. He walked into the kitchen and out again, munching away at the muffin…without the plate. I asked again “Could you get a plate for your muffin please?” I glanced down at the vacuum cleaner and looked up only to see the crumbs falling to the floor with no plate in sight. My response came so swiftly I swore my head must’ve spun around exorcist style as my voice rose deep from within me, so loudly and harshly that it shocked us both and we stood staring at each other, silently. Then his face crumpled and he walked away with his head bent low and his shoulders hunched inward like he’d been knifed by my words. The tone and tension of my voice had been harsh and critical, even snide and it underlined the pitch and volume in which the words were said. I was stressed, burdening myself with a million little details that exploded in my stress talking! But was I intending to be harsh? Did my behavior go along with the snide undertone? It didn’t matter what my intention was because the effect or outcome outweighed all the good intentions with which I’d started that conversation. I took a deep breath and a memory of me on a school playground came to mind. I could hear my middle school voice chanting defiantly: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!”

But they did…and remembering my son’s face I know they still do….

Sallye Forth is a mom working outside of the home, a co-parent, life coach and writer. She’s a citizen of the world who shares her world view on varied topics of interests on her blog, Blogstown; a cybercafé for grown-ups.



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Sallye Forth is a mom working outside of the home, a co-parent, psychotherapist, life coach, and supportive friend. She was born in Europe, grew up in the Caribbean, attended university and obtained her degrees in Canada and has lived in the United States since Hurricane Andrew. She's a licensed psychotherapist and speaks three other languages, Spanish, French, and Creole. Sallye has been listening to and helping people of all ages, races, and cultures for more than 20 years. However, she has found her greatest challenge and growth has come from being a mother to her son who continues to amaze her with the extraordinary person he is! Her plan is to begin again to travel nationally and internationally this time with the goal of broadening her son's cultural horizons so that he too becomes a citizen of the world. She continues to live to the best of her ability, her mantra that “Your thoughts create your world" and positive thoughts bring positive results!"


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