What’s In A Name

What’s in a Name?

Lionel was moody in recent weeks. His parents noticed that he appeared to be more withdrawn at home and spent more time in his room. When they inquired at the school, teachers mentioned that the other kids had been picking on Lionel because it was “different”. Not knowing how to deal with the other kids, he was spending more time by himself at recess and not engaging with other kids.

Names. They help to identify us. They partly define us. Some are strong sounding. Others are not. Some link us to famous people. Some link us to family members. Some make for positive nick-names. Others, not so much. Some are accepted by us. Others are rejected by us. And like the brothers Grimm fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, names can have a tremendous power to bind us or free us.

Identity Development is a critical domain that is frequently addressed as part of the CCI model. Children who emerge from toxic home environments often struggle with their identities as they grow. Despite being in a safe new home environment, these children may hold on to old labels that were spoken over them. Ugly names, put downs, labels and historical criticisms have a way of impairing positive identity development. In the mind of a vulnerable child, names given early, and sometimes by unkind caregivers must be true. Challenging and changing the impact of these names is a key component in helping the child to develop a positive identity.

How to change a child’s self-perceptions from negative to positive is as individualized as the child. Depending on their receptivity several strategies may prove effective if conducted consistently by caring adults over time.

In the story of Lionel, his name was a source of ridicule from other students. Not having the social or emotional tools to deal with this, his Identity Development was impacted. Feeling embarrassment or shame was the emotional consequence. Helping Lionel to identify his name as a source of strength became a strategy for both his parents and the school.

Some examples of how to strengthen kids’ identities, using their names are as follows:

Wall of Fame.

This strategy is fairly simple. As many children who have navigated traumatizing environments, shame is common. By developing a wall of fame, adult caregivers begin to identify positive activities, accomplishments, and characteristics of the child. By collecting material and posting it in a central area the child is able to see positive messages about who they are. They also hear from adults that they have recognized value.


This strategy uses each letter of the child’s name as a reference to a character strength. The name MARK can take on the meaning: Musical, Adventurous, Remarkable and Kind. When used as part of the “wall of fame”, the child learns to find value in their name.

Famous People.

This strategy looks to identify others who are famous that share the child’s name. Famous people can be current, historical and even fictional. If a child’s name is Alex, caregivers could research the ancient Greek king Alexander the Great. Stories that highlighted his intelligence, capabilities and conquests could be used as bedtime stories. The scientist Alexander Graham Bell; Fashion designer Alexander McQueen or football player Shawn Alexander could all be used to explore positive meanings of the name. These characters, stories and associations can help a child to find redemptive value in their own name.

Name’s Meaning.

This strategy looks to identify what the child’s name actually means. Websites such as www.names.org, http://www.meaning-of-names.com and http://www.behindthenames.com can all provide the nuanced meaning of a person’s name. Knowing that the name “Alexander” means “defender of the people” can help a young child find redemptive meaning in their name.

In Lionel’s case, his parents began to discuss how they came to name their son, and the significance it meant to them. Lionel meant “young lion” and it represented for them the strength, courage and intelligence of the animal. They also began to talk about his favorite sport, soccer, and how one of the most amazing players in the game was Lionel Messi. Watching YouTube videos and talking about his ability, despite having a tough start in life helped him to identify with the star. Over time Lionel began to see the value in his name as a source of strength and identity.

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About the author

Dr. Kirk Austin, Ph.D., RCC, CCI Coach

Dr. Kirk Austin is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and member of our CTR Clinical team. To learn more about him click here.

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