It happens a million times a day, it seems: the kids say things that make you feel like cheerfully jumping off a bridge…or, even worse, pushing them off that bridge! Kids seem to innately know how to push your buttons, and they do it with great joy and exceeding frequency. No matter how satisfying it may seem in thought to retort sarcastically or to spontaneously burst into flame from annoyance in a screaming rage, there are better and more constructive ways to deal with it. Here are some tips for dealing with the nasty things kids say…without a temper tantrum on your part.
This one is the bane of my existence–with four children, you can imagine I hear it frequently, often accompanied by screaming, pushing, clawing, and growling from all parties involved, usually concerning some broken or previously forgotten toy or item that has suddenly become the best thing since sliced bread. It makes no sense: half the time, the other child wants whatever his/her sibling has just because they want to take it away from them. Logical, huh? It’s maddening. Other times, they go through a phase where EVERYTHING is theirs, and the child walks around chanting “Mine! Mine!” like some kind of infernal mantra. When this happens I want to take whatever is being fought over, or whatever is being claimed constantly, douse it in napalm, and set it afire while dancing gleefully around its smoking ashes, with the wailing of my children in the background.
Not precisely the best reaction.
Instead of getting worked up and making a scene, or being unfair to one or the other child, throw out a short and sweet phrase that lets the kid know that they’re not getting their way. Something like, “Sorry!” or “We can’t always have everything we want,” or, “Never!” Well, not that last one. You get my point. Having something to say will keep you from saying the wrong thing entirely, hopefully. Also, remember to practice delayed gratification: if they want something, they need to wait to get it, or perhaps even do something to earn it. As they get older, it will become easier.
This one makes me clench my jaws until I feel like my teeth will shatter. Anyone who has more than one child above the age of one or so will hear this phrase about a thousand times per day. I spend a lot of time making sure servings of food, special treats, etc., are doled out fairly and equally among my kids, but it’s very hard. I understand the frustration the kids feel when they think their siblings have an unfair advantage–but sometimes, it’s just not possible to be “fair” all the time. Another thing: life isn’t fair. When I hear “That’s not fair!” I want to yell back, “Life isn’t fair! Get used to it!” It’s sad but true…but do we really want to be the ones to teach that to our kids, that life is often cruel and completely random in terms of fairness?
Rather than getting into an existential discussion or becoming cynical, try this: put it into simple terms. Instead of being hard, explain it a little. “I know you want to go to that birthday party, but it’s not your friend, and you weren’t invited. I don’t want to go to work every day, either, but I have to so we can have food and a house!” Translation: even adults have to endure “unfair” events in life.
Also, rather than point-blank order them to do or not do something, rather than respond angrily, rewind the situation. Tell them to rephrase, to moderate their tone and demeanor: “Mom, can we please talk about this?” rather than, “It’s so unfair! You always …” Then, if it’s something they genuinely feel passionate about and can support with an argument (“I’m 12 now, and I think I am old enough to stay up past 9 PM,” for example), you can perhaps discuss the issue and try to resolve it more “fairly.” In this technique, you not only teach them to discuss issues more civilly, you also provide a good example for being a “fair” parent.
“You’re not the boss of me!”
This one doesn’t get said much around my house–my kids definitely know who is boss in our home, and that we have no qualms in ordering them to do thus and such. It’s a benevolent dictatorship, and it works for us. However, not all families operate in the same fashion. And I am sure that someday I will have to confront this one a lot more. Most parents would be tempted to retort, “Heck yeah I am!” and promptly prove that authority by levying some kind of punishment, but this isn’t really the best way to encourage obedience, and it could completely ignore a genuine need being expressed by your child: a need for a bit of control over their own lives.
Kids often feel powerless. They are told when to sleep, eat, bathe, go to school, play, etc. Most are told what to wear, how to wear their hair, what books to read, what shows to watch or not watch, you get my drift. It’s a bit like prison, but much cushier. When a kid lashes out like that, defying your authority, it could be as simple as that they need some ability to choose and exercise their independence. Why does my benevolent dictatorship work? Because the kids know they have rights and can make a lot of their own decisions within certain parameters. For example, I let them decide what they want to wear, when to cut their hair (within reason…), and other things. They also know that there are limits: I let them watch and read what they like, as long as I have vetted it. They know they can go to friends’ houses and do things, so long as I have done my checking up and meeting the parents and such. Kids like having freedom, but they do need (and crave) structure. Allowing them the room to blossom within a framework of rules and love will produce happier and less bratty kids. It can be as simple as letting your daughter pick out her own shoes, or allowing your son to drop the soccer and take karate instead.
“You never let me do anything!”
I hear this fairly often. Benevolent dictator, remember? Usually it’s from the younger kids, who see their older brother and sister getting more freedom than they do. Sometimes it gets frustrating: just like you, I limit the younger kids’ activities based on their experience and my ability to trust them. For example, I will let my older two go to the store by themselves (it’s 2 blocks away), but the younger ones, no, they have to be accompanied by an older sibling. It’s common sense to us, but it’s grossly unfair and restricting to the child, who has no appreciation for why you’re limiting them–because you love them and are protecting them.
If the child is old enough to listen and understand, explain things to them. Often this is fruitless, because a really angry kid doesn’t want to listen to a lecture. The smartest thing to do is to listen to them, instead. Find out if there’s something deeper going on. This goes hand-in-hand with the fairness and giving more choices issues. It could be that you need to rethink a parenting strategy, or perhaps your child has something going on inside, and need to talk, they just don’t know how to start. By letting them know you’re listening, you at least open the door to discourse.
“I don’t like you!” or, “I wish you weren’t my mom!” or, “I hate you!”
I think every parent has heard some variation of this, and I tell ya, it hurts to the core, lemon juice on a paper cut on your heart. Actually, more like someone doused it with napalm and set it on fire. It sucks. It’s something every parent, no matter how awesome they are and how much their kids (really do) love them–every kid will say awful things someday, in the heat of the moment. It’s not true, though, unless you’re of the “tough love” kind of parent that joyfully sticks splinters up under their kids’ fingernails. I thought not.
What do you do? Most parents, myself included, want to respond viscerally, with some kind of retort or anger. But the best thing to do, according to the experts, is to calm down. Don’t take it personally. Instead of snapping back, try to get to the heart of your child’s distress. When it’s a younger child, the reason for such outbursts is usually fatigue or frustration–your seven year old son has stayed up too late and gotten himself wound up; when you tell him to quiet down and go to sleep, he snaps back out of grouchiness. If it’s an older child, it’s usually because they’re testing the limits of your authority, are tired or upset about something altogether unrelated, or are frustrated. You tell your pre-teen daughter to get off the internet and do her homework, and she goes off. Regardless of the why, the response should be (as much as possible) calm. Say something like, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I don’t think you really mean that. But regardless, I love you very much.” Usually, these storms blow over quickly, with the child realizing they over-reacted. Sometimes it results in a much-needed heart-to-heart, where it may be revealed you have some things to deal with, too.
Sometimes kids are just annoying because they’re being…well, kids. Other times, there’s more to the annoyance than what it looks like at first glance. Try your best to keep your cool, watch your words and strive to see past the bad behavior to the root, and make resolving that issue a priority.