Parenting a Whiny, Disrespectful Child: How to Stay Calm
As parents, we are probably all familiar with being provoked into a blood vessel-popping rage.
We are instantly overwhelmed and any resolution we might have made to stay calm is eradicated. That’s because kids are amazingly good at refining behaviors that they can turn to when they’re disappointed or angry, especially in public, to make their parents even angrier.
Let’s just stand back for a moment and appreciate the virtuosity of the 6-year-old who trails along behind you every morning on the way to school wailing that you’re mean because you make him wear an uncomfortable backpack. Or the 9-year-old who demonstrates her budding independence and wit by being rude to you in front of others, or the 12-year-old who during an argument over chores shouts, “You don’t care about anybody but yourself! You just want me to do all this stupid stuff around your stupid house because you’re so selfish and lazy!”
It’s as if they had commissioned a study of the most effective ways to set you off and then implemented the findings with great care and foresight. And yet there you go, rising to the bait. What’s your standard move? The come-along arm yank? The livid pinch-and-shake combo? The point-by-point counterargument? “What? I’m selfish? I’m lazy? I changed your diapers and picked your nose and sat up with you all night long when you were sick! I work hard all day to support this family, and then I get home and I clean and I cook. …”
There’s really no satisfying response, is there? Decreeing an extravagantly harsh punishment may immediately address your sense of justice, but it’s unlikely to make the annoying behavior go away, and once you calm down, you’re unlikely to stick with the punishment, anyway.
Grabbing, shaking, hitting, or screaming at your kid may stop the behavior and be cathartic for you, but only for a moment (after which you may well begin to feel guilty for losing control of yourself and overreacting), and over time such responses will likely lead to further behavioral problems. Ignoring the unwanted behavior and finding ways to encourage its positive opposite is the effective response for getting rid of the unwanted behavior in the long run, but this approach won’t satisfy your overwhelming short-term urge to do something right now that punishes the crime.
It’s difficult to work out a satisfying response to flagrant disrespect because you’re typically in the grip of at least four distinct, only partially overlapping, and often conflicting motives:
- An emotional urge to do something with the anger surging up inside you
- A moralistic impulse to dispense justice in proportion to the offense
- A social obligation to show yourself and your child and any others who might be watching that you don’t tolerate such behavior
- A practical intent to get rid of the problem so you don’t have to put up with such hassles in the future.
Does that mean you should NEVER reason with your kids? Of course not. But before you do answer the “why can’t I?” “why not?” questions, ask yourself “have I already given my child the answers to this question many, many times already?” If the answer is yes, then instead of using reasoning to try to change your child’s mind, try saying something like:
“What do you think?”
“I’ll bet you know the answer to that question”
“Do you have any idea what I’m going to say?”
“I don’t blame you for being upset. And you have heard my answer already.”
If your child is truly interested in the answer to her question, then, of course, give her an explanation. But before you answer “why” questions automatically, consider the possibility of having your child to give you the answer. It will tell you what is on her mind and how they think. That also helps you to listen and understand what she is really believes or what she has figured out for herself.
If by the age of five, you’re starting to feel as if your child is ready for law school, its a signal to reason less. Many children–particularly preschoolers–try to wear you down by whining. And when they do, it’s almost impossible not to become annoyed and frustrated. Whining is heavy-duty irritation, akin to scratching on a blackboard. But there are strategies parents can use, rather than giving in or getting furious.
When faced with criticism, blame or defensive false accusations, we can say, “It’s awful, isn’t it!” or, “I don’t blame you for being angry” or “I never thought of it that way.” We are just letting them know we heard what they said!
Rather then offer explanations, counter-critiques, or defenses, we can choose to do something else instead, such as:
• We can agree with them; e.g., “It certainly seems like I’m hard to get along with.” We are not agreeing with the facts of the matter, we are agreeing that they feel the way they feel. Feelings are like opinions and perceptions in that they are subjective, without a factual basis.
• We can choose to agree that they are upset: “It’s so frustrating when this happens, isn’t it.” We do not need to go on and on defending the inaccuracy of their accusations, trying to win a pardon for our offense against them. We are not required to defend against fiction.
• We can say, “I can tell you are angry.” This is not a confession of guilt. It is an observation of their tone, words and body language. We are just acknowledging that we can tell they are in emotional pain.
• We can say “It must make you angry when that happens. I don’t blame you, I’d be angry too if that happened to me.” This is an appropriate validation of the other person’s anger and of their worth as a person. When we validate the other person’s anger, we are validating their right to have feelings in spite of their unpleasant choice in how they are being conveyed.
• We can choose to calm ourself down, and put our own anger in a moderate, manageable perspective: “What difference does it make? Just because they said it, doesn’t make it literally true. It’s how they feel in the present. It’s not a fact. It’s just their opinion and perception in the moment.
Here’s what NOT to do if you already have a child who is earning an advanced degree in whining. Don’t change your no into a yes. Don’t try to explain or justify your reasons for refusing to grant your child’s wish. Beware. If your child has even the merest hope that the more he whines, the more chance there is that you’ll give in, he will up the ante and whine more.
Instead, help your child to learn alternative, more positive ways to ask for what she wants. During a calm, pleasant moment when you have your child’s attention, ask her if she knows how to ask for something in her regular voice and not a whining voice. Have her show you how she does this and say something like: “Yes, that is exactly the way it sounds when you ask for something in your ‘whiny’ voice. Now let’s practice your asking me for something in your ‘regular’ voice (or your ‘Suzy’ voice or your ‘big girl’ voice).” Compliment her when she uses that normal voice.
The next time she starts to whine, instead of repeatedly telling her to “stop whining”, ask her to use her regular voice. If you do this consistently, chances are you will be on the way to curing the whining habit.