Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Stop Calling Children "Drama Queens"

Two toddlers are running around at the playground, turn a corner and run right into each other.  The force knocks each of them to the ground.  As one toddler's parent asks the little one if she is okay from the fall, the other toddler's parent rolls his eyes, chuckles and tells her not to be such a "drama queen".  The kids get up and continue playing.  You wouldn't be able to tell which child had which discussion, at least not on the surface.  While one child feels respected, validated and that her feelings matter, the other one doesn't bother to show any feelings because they will not be taken seriously anyway. 
The sidewalks are crowded and icy.  While one adult is rushing to get home from a long days work, another is engulfed in their cell phone while waiting for a cab.  The person in a hurry turns quickly and bumps into the other adult, knocking them down.  The fallen adult shrieks in pain and and grabs his ankle.  Is he a "drama queen" also?

There are a lot of situations that are similar that happen to adults and children.  Adults are almost always taken seriously, but it seems that children rarely are.  Their reactions and emotions are often made trivial by surrounding adults.  But, they are not trivial and each interaction teaches the children something far bigger that what is seen on the surface.

 An Unfinished Brain

Humans are born with a very immature brain; it is only 25% of the final adult brain size.

90% of the growth of the human brain occurs in the first five years of life.1  The lower part of the brain is emotional, triggering strong emotions.  The higher part of the brain, the last part of the brain to develop, is in charge of reasoning, empathy and keeping the strong emotions in check.  The higher part of the brain continues to develop in the teenage years and even into the early 20s!2  Children are not setting out to be "excessivly emotional" as Merriam Webster defines a "Drama Queen". "Drama queen" emotions and reactions in children are simply an example of the higher part of the brain not being developed enough to calm and control the impulses of the lower brain.  

They are simply being children who have the same needs of love, empathy and understanding as the rest of us adults.

During the first five years of a child's life, the higher brain is forming a huge amount of connections between its cells.  These connections affect how the child will function socially and emotionally.3  The base of these connections rely very heavily on what the child is exposed to, reactions they experience, words that are said to them.  When children are exposed to bullying at a young age, the brain structures and chemical systems in their brain actually change.4  It is vitally important not to mock or bully a child. 

Minimizing Feelings & A Blow to Self-Esteem
When a child is called things such as "drama queen" and their feelings are not taken seriously, they may start to feel they do not deserve to be taken seriously.  If those around them are telling them they are insignificant, then they believe that they are insignificant.  They slowly start believing that what they say or feel really doesn't matter.  They may hide their feelings or loose their self respect leaving them even more vulnerable to bullies, drugs etc. The last thing a parent wants is a child afraid to be honest or express themselves openly in the parent-child relationship.

Shaming & a Fear of Vulnerability
Children learn by example.  What example does it set for a child on how to treat someone in a time of upset if when they are upset, they are not taken seriously, validated or shown empathy, but instead shamed?  Shame is an intense and painful feeling.  One way to protect oneself from shame is to put up a shield against ones own vulnerability.  Any weaknesses are hidden so that no one can cause the child to feel shame.  Children learn that pointing out another's vulnerability, they can protect their own.  They may try to rid themselves of their shame by projecting it onto others and become a bully.

Namecalling & Labelling are Self Fullfilling Prophecies
Children naturally look to adults for direction and information and internalize things said to or about them.  Namecalling and labelling are self fullfilling prophecies.  If a child is constantly called or labelled as something, then that becomes true to them and they actually will strive to fit the label.  Maybe the fall doesn't hurt, but the child knows they are a "drama queen", so they know they need to yell and scream and make an excessive commotion, which will result in them being called a "drama queen", and so on.

The Effects of Labelling on the Labeller
Labels such as "drama queens" have a negative connotation.  How would your reactions towards someone or a situation change if you thought of someone as "drama queen" versus thinking of them as human beings who have the same needs and feelings as yourself?  How would you respond differently?  Think about the examples at the beginning of this page.  You have convinced yourself that your child is a drama queen.  Clearly, when they fall and are upset, you are annoyed because you have already decided this reaction is in excess and only to get a reaction or attention which you have no intention of giving.  Later, you see an adult, who you have no pre-conceived notions of, fall.  You rush over to see if they are hurt, need help to get up, need a doctor.  Perhaps you empathize with them, at their embarrassment of the fall.  The two scenarios are similar, but your reactions are polar opposites.  The difference is the labels you already had set, or not, in your own mind.

Whether negative comments by adults to and/or about children are meant to be insulting or whether they are said in what is meant to be "good natured fun", there are serious and long term consequences to minimizing childrens' feelings, shaming, namecalling and labelling. Stop doing it!

This post was inspired by an actual event as described in the first paragraph.  The other parent went so far as to imply my toddler was also a "drama queen" after the two toddlers collided and Gumby asked for a mooch.  The problem is that neither Deeda nor myself are good with confrontations.  We said nothing and just ignored the folks, though we both wanted so badly to explain to him what the consequences are of his actions.
What did you think of the post?
What would you have done in the situation?
How could we educate folks should this happen (and we all know it will) in the future?

1, 3, 4.  The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland


  1. What a thoughtful post! I agree that it is at the least a bad example, and even potentially harmful, to call children names. I've heard parents call kids "drama queens," "crybabies," "a mess," and more. I just don't believe in shaming kids when they are expressing themselves or processing something painful or stressful (well, anytime really!).
    Thank you for hitting all of these reasons - I shared on FB!

  2. VERY good article..needs to be read by every parent! Sharing on my facebook.

  3. Wow, what an amazing post, I learned a lot. I'm going to share on facebook too!

  4. This topic is so important to me I want to shout it from every roof top of every city. My child was called "lazy" a few times before she knew how to walk by certain family members who apparently thought using that word in conjunction with a child was OK. I am also not one for confrontation and I did not have the "balls" to stand up and say something, though I vowed if it ever happened again I would. It never ceases to amaze me how adults can treat one another better than they treat their own children. I have also shared on FB and can only hope that the people who need to read it actually do.

  5. I'm going to share on FB as well and just signed up to follow you on GFC. I feel really strongly about this too. My son is only 8.5 months old, but a family member once called him a "cry baby" and I very firmly told my family member that she could never again speak to my son that way and try to label him like that. This family member is a very loving person, but I think people have knee jerk reflexes sometimes and labels are easy ways for them to smooth over situations where they don't know that to say otherwise. I think that unless people are specifically told it is not okay, they may not realize they are doing it and may not realize the harm they cause. Thanks so much for a great post!

  6. As a child who was ALWAYS dismissed as being a drama queen or overreacting I can tell you how important this post is.
    I still have a hard time feeling like my needs-particularly around illness or upset-are valid.

    As a side problem I find it hard to not dismiss my own children because I was never shown how.

  7. Wow. Thanks so much for a well-said post. I've been trying to help my husband understand our daughter's perspective when she gets frustrated instantly and starts screaming. I plan to read this post to him tomorrow! I'm sure it will help.

  8. I just dont get why some adults think its ok to talk to children like that, someone told my little girl who was not yet 2 at the time that, "you don't have any hair" you may not think someone that young would understand, but she reached up and ran her fingers through her thin hair and looked sad, I had to just let it go, because if I did not, I would regret it later, I just wish people would think before they say thoughtless things to children...

  9. re: anonymous at 8:39 - I wrote a post about that same thing. I used to get so steamed when people would say things about Kieran's hair in front of him!!
    If you're interested:

  10. Thanks Dionna :)

  11. Isn't it funny how you gt information just when you need it!? DH thinks it's ok to call our 7 mo " naughty." It just doesn't sit right with me, and now I have some facts to back me up! And not only at home with our kids, but out around other kids it's terrible how young the labeling has started! The parents in my mother's group have picked the "bully" etc etc. These kids are only half a year old, fir crying out loud!

    As for the non confrontational out there who have had their kid shamed, may I suggest one simple statement: "He/She is not _____, he/she is a human being!" While it may not go far into explaining you philosophy, you kid will know you have stood up forcthem and perhaps the careless may think twice before name calling

  12. @Dionna, @Betsy, @Terri -
    Thanks so much for sharing the link :)

    Thanks for sharing the link. It seems like people are in such a hurry for kids to grow up - crawl, sleep, walk, talk, become independent. I dont know what the rush is. They are all going to do those things *when they are ready*. They just need support and respect like the rest of us.

    @I Thought I Knew Mamma -
    Thanks for sharing the link. Good for you for standing up for your little one! Labeling and categorizing does seem to help people align things in their own mind. it's done so often in so many things. it's discrimination.

    @Anonymous @ 6:56pm -
    I am sorry that your own needs to be heard and accepted were not met. Awareness is the first step to changing things. Take time to give *yourself* empathy and understanding. Repeating back what you see and think your child is feeling will help her/him feel validated. "i see you threw the puzzle pieces on the floor. are you frustrated because it wouldn't fit together the way you wanted it to?" Hang in there!

    @Mamma Jorje -
    Thank you, hope there are some things here to help your hubby understand what is going on with your little sweetie :)

    @Anonymouse @ 8:39pm -
    That is heartbreaking. another double standard, you wouldn't go up to an adult and say that. people seem to think things with kids are funny or that they dont understand. they understand a lot more than most adults seem to give them credit.

    @blupiiglet -
    I know the feeling about getting information just when you need it! I like your simple response for standing up for your child. Because you are right - the fact that they know you stood up for them is more important, really, than educating or whatever the other person takes away from it. I will keep that in mind!

  13. Wow! What a great article. It echoed just what we have been talking about in our home the last few days (ie: talking and treating kids with the same respect you would anyone else). It also made me realize that even when we call someone a drama queen because their actions are cute, also undermine their feelings.
    I think the biggest eye opener for me was recognizing how I was as a child and now as an adult from what I experienced as a child and seeing how/why it happened. A little more understand of why my dh and I are the way we are.
    Thank you for writing and posting this!

  14. Well, I won't disagree with very small children. However, when you have a 3rd grader who wails at every little thing, that is a child who IS being over-dramatic. Of course, at 8 or 9 you can talk to the child about appropriate reactions. If she's been hurt, I always check on her physical well-being and I let her know that it's ok to be upset but that there's a limit and a point at which she needs to take her crying into her room until she can calm down rather than subjecting the rest of the family to it. She has long gotten attention for this kind of behavior, as a way, I'm sure, of dealing with having 2 'special needs' sisters. Yes, she does get called a drama queen at times. However, we do try to explain to her what is and is not appropriate and why. I've made a point to let her know that it is ok to feel bad or dissapointed about something but that she won't get attention for excessive crying or whining.

  15. What a great post- a wonderful reminder that our language has great bearing on how we are percieved by our children, and the consequences that it can have on their development! I admit, I am guilty of calling abbey a drama queen in moments when she throws herself on the floor in a tantrum. . . But never when I can see that there is reason for her to be upset or scared. (yes I know there is reason for a tantrum, it's just harder to hold my tongue in that situation).

    We have recently gotten pretty good at using deep breathing to calm (both of us) down and that minimizes the times that I get frustrated with a tantrum and fling negative language her way. It's important as parents to see our parenting slip ups and try as hard as we can to find healthier ways to help/deal with the situation.

    Thanks for this post!

  16. Wow! I thought this would be a light-hearted post about name calling... but it's chock-full of brain research and timely information. Just goes to show I shouldn't judge a post by it's title :-) Thank you for your important writing.

  17. @earthmothergypsy - isn't it interesting in learning about our children, we also continue to learn more about ourselves.

    @8d2cd75c-4b67-11e0-a4d5-000bcdcb2996 - while i only have experience with a toddler, i may still emphasize the importance of looking for the underlying feelings and needs and validating her feelings without making judgements. you know your child best as to the severity and seriousness of the cries.

    @Amyables - i couldn't agree more with using deep breathing and seeing slip ups. we are human and its important for the kids to see the slip ups and how we then deal with that situation.

    @Mama Mo - I guess I get crabby when my kid is insulted :P but i do try to be constructive ;)

  18. I just wanted to let you know, I'm sharing this post in my Sunday Surf. Thanks again!

  19. I just wanted to share really quick to verify the intense impact of this post. I am 32 years old. I was called a drama queen all my life. My mom never meant it maliciously, she was a good mom. I am now dealing with feelings of low self worth, cutting, and have even attempted suicide. I'm not in any way saying this is all my moms fault- don't misread that. But when speaking with her about my childhood just a couple days ago I heard again that I always was a drama queen and things were never as bad as I thought they were. Even at 32 I felt shame for my feelings and wondered what in the world is wrong with me. Why I just can't get it together because life's not that bad. So all that to say- never EVER call a child a drama queen or minimize what they feel. Never tell them they should or shouldn't feel a certain way. It can impact them for life.

  20. @Anonymous -

    Thank you for your honesty and openess about the impact of namecalling, specifically one such as 'drama queen'. I think a lot of people think I worry about such small things, but those small things add up and I do think that it is important to notice them as much as possible - surely, there are still some you miss! Also, even if meant in fun by the adult, what really matters here is how the child interprets the message and what *they* take away from it. I wish you success as you continue your journey of healing. Thanks again for stopping by!

  21. Well, I'm 52, a mom and a grandmama and I am just amazed at how times have changed over the years. Back in my youth, kids were taught their place. We were to be seen and not heard. We were told to learn how to take constructive criticism, and not to be a 'crybaby' (yeah, I got called that a few time). Kids weren't mollycoddled the way they are nowadays. At any rate, I fought long and hard to learn how to 'toughen up' even did a stint in the military to do it, but these parents of today allow all kinds of disruptive behaviors that would've been unacceptable in public 35-40 years ago. No, name calling and making fun of someone isn't right, but if a kid really is being a 'drama king or queen', and is constantly crying over every little thing just to manipulate a situation, then the parents need to nip it in the bud and fast! Why? Because those are the kids who wind up as adults with 'failure to launch', they're the ones living at home at after age 26, not being able to resolve conflicts and allowing personal problems to rule their lives. They're the ones who have problem finding and keeping jobs/relationships and they won't take personal responsibility for their lives because they've been told all their lives that the world revolves around them, and they're special and not like the other kids! IMO, too many kids today are way too spoiled, and it's the parents fault because indulge them too much. It's really not fair to the rest of the people when someone's kid is constantly allowed to have the floor or holds the rest of society hostage with their tantrums and 'meltdowns.'