Eliminate “Shut up!” from Your Family’s Vocabulary

by James Lehman, MSW
Eliminate “Shut up!” from Your Family’s Vocabulary

For many families, the "shut up"  response is an "A-side/B-side" issue. Here, James Lehman MSW tackles the problem from both perspectives, and shows you how to eliminate it from your family's vocabulary.

“Shut up!”  What to do when your child says it to you:
If your child tells you to shut up, the best thing to do is not give it power. And by arguing, talking and fighting back, you’re giving it power. Instead, the next time it happens, try saying, “Don’t talk to me that way, I don’t like it,” and turn around and leave the room. When things have calmed down, tell your child what the consequence is for his or her rude behavior.

And by the way, there should be regular consequences in the house for things like cursing, name calling, and rude behavior. They should be functional consequences, like “No cell phone for 24 hours.” That way, kids know what will happen if they break the rules, and you don’t have to repeat it every time. So you don’t have to fight with them, just use the consequences that you think would be most effective with your child, whether it’s no video games for 24 hours, or taking away their cell phone for a day.

"Shut up!”  Why you should never say it to your child:
On the other hand, do you ever find yourself saying, “Just shut up and do it!” to your child? Parents tell kids to shut up for a variety of reasons. But ultimately, it’s to exert their control over the conversation. Sometimes they want backtalk to stop, sometimes they want complaining to stop, and sometimes they’re just tired of listening to their child. No matter what the context, saying “Shut up” is rarely helpful and never appropriate. It begins a power struggle which the child may not be willing to lose. Remember, there are many things to fight about with children; this shouldn’t be one of them.

The reality is that “shut up” is a rude, offensive comment. Kids learn that fact very early through various channels, from movies, music, school and TV.  So when you’re saying “Shut up” to a child, they know they’re being insulted. And the last thing you want is teach your child how to say “shut up” to you or anyone else.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


My husband's family did not allow the phrase, and the two of us have tried not to say it, either. The children also have been trained not to use it and rarely slip. Not using it in a household, I think, makes a home more civil and dignified. It's an excellent way to keep the family conversation on a higher level.

Comment By : Anais

The problem we have is that there are really not many things for me to use as punishment. And my oldest has gotten so incredibly rude, we can't stand to live with him. He has no cell phone (anymore). He has no car. He has not income (so I can't charge him). If I "ground" him from friends, there's an even bigger explosion. I'm at a loss at this point as to how to make corrections. And yes, the adults at home have been guilty of saying it, but we've told the kids that we don't want to use those types of words in our home anymore...and we are much better for the most part. Not sure where this is going...I guess I'm just feeling like it's a great idea to eliminate rude behavior, but an impossible root to dig up. :o(

Comment By : Momhashadit

a good reminder why to refrain from this expression...

Comment By : marni

guilty of saying it, but how do you get a child or even 2 of them to be quiet after already taking away games, tv., and going to a friends house. I"m talking about them just making noises to annoy me or sibling even after closing the door?

Comment By : loosingit

I used to say it all the time when I'd lose my temper. I have, however, been substituting "hush!". It seems less degrading, and I wouldn't mind if the kids said that to each other. Strangely, and thank goodness, no one has picked up the bad habit from me.

Comment By : Ilene

As a parent, I think the biggest challenge in raising children, is my own self discipline. If I am disciplined, concerning my own behavior and speech, parenting is much easier. If I can truthfully say to my child, "Do you hear me talking like that? Then I do not want to hear you talk that way. I respect you and I expect you to respect me." Then there is a better foundation to work with. Good parenting is a "LOT" of hard work!

Comment By : Donna

I don't get it. I am a teacher and don't see shut up as rude or a cuss word. My dad told me to shut up and he meant it. And we did! And he was GREAT! We all grew up healthy and happy! Always pick your battles. This isn't one of mine.

Comment By : dawn

My difficulty is with my 7, 6, 5, and 3 year olds. They get into the "shut your mouth" battle and I can not stop it! I'm totally guilty of starting it. There is nothing of any value to them for me to take away. Can't wait for a currency to evolve!

Comment By : Autumn

Shut up is not a nice word. To me it is an authoritarian negative word which only produces more negativity. Definitely inappropriate to say to anyone!

Comment By : greyfoxrdnarnd

punishment of no mobile for 24 hrs is all well and good if you're talking about teens but my 5 year old is abuses me with you F, Bloody mummy over and over and over and over in frustration whenever he's told no. he's sent to his room to calm down and the times are getting shorter BUT he's about to have us evicted becuase I cannot work out an appropriate punishment , no tv doesn't work becuase we rarely watch it anyway and it's in the main living area of a small unit so there is no way to bar his view. he doesn't have much and I struggle to 'catch' him being good. any suggestions?

Comment By : boy5

I have found it simple and effective to have them owe money to the person they say shut up to, money motivates in my house! They also owe money if they swear, that costs $1 per word. Hey, I can use the money as a single mom, and they know it. Rarely do I ever collect, cuz my kids don't swear or say shut up! My oldest son used to do this, but paid for it, and is now doing very well!

Comment By : lisama

* To “boy5”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. I can hear how frustrating your son’s behavior is for you. It can be difficult to know the best way to respond in the moment when your child is verbally abusing you. That’s part of the reason we suggest disengaging when your child is talking to you disrespectfully. That would look something like this: Your son asks you for something and you say no. He starts to swear and talk disrespectfully. You say to him “It’s not OK to talk to me that way.” And then you turn around and walk away. Try not to give the behavior any more attention than that in the moment. After things have calmed down, you can follow up with a problem-solving conversation and possibly a consequence. We would also suggest using a reward or incentive chart. Younger children sometimes respond better to rewards than consequences. Here is a great article that reviews the best way to use behavior charts and also has different types of charts you can print off to use. Child Behavior Charts: How to Use Behavior Charts Effectively. You may also want to review this problem solving article by Sara Bean: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems". We wish you luck as you continue to address this challenging behavior. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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Related keywords:

Shut up, Backtalk, verbal abuse, Power Struggle

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