Has your child’s attitude ever ruined dinner? Or a whole day or even a long stretch of days?
Bad attitudes can be difficult to deal with. For many parents, they represent disrespect and thus can trigger our own parental pushback. For others, fear that their child is on a slippery slope to nowhere good is incredibly alarming. Either way, we want to shut it down quickly, and so we often resort to the same tactics our parents used on us when we displayed a bad attitude.
However, a bad attitude - like all behavior - is a clue. Here’s an excerpt that went viral from my book, The Newbie’s Guide to Positive Parenting:
So often, children are punished for being human. Children are not allowed to have grumpy moods or bad days. We expect them to be in complete control of their emotional reactions at all times, yet how many of us can do this? Have you never yelled or slammed a door in anger? Have you never snapped at your child or spouse after a stressful day? Have you never given a hateful glare or complained about everyday frustrations? If you have never done those things, then you are certainly entitled to expect your child to be a perfect human, but for the rest of us, for all of us who sometimes slip up, we need to offer the same understanding and grace we hope is afforded to us. We all have hard days. Bad days don't make us bad people. None of us are perfect, and we shouldn't hold our children to a standard of perfection that we ourselves cannot attain.
This is not to say, of course, that you do not correct a disrespectful remark or a sour mood that is disrupting the peace of the home. It is our job to teach our children what is appropriate. Teach them that it's not okay to project a bad mood on those around them. Teach them how to handle frustration, anger, fear, sadness, and disappointment. Teach them that it's not acceptable to be rude to people. High standards are good. Hold them to a high standard! But please, hold yourself to one, too. Don't project your bad moods. Learn how to handle your frustration, anger, fear, sadness, and disappointment. Don't be rude to them. Set the example. We all need high standards, and do you know what else we all need?
A little grace.
You know better, but sometimes you have a bad day and you say something that isn't nice, or you slam a door, or you yell at your kids. We aren't robots. Sometimes life is just plain hard, and we need a break, not a lecture. We need a hug, not a scornful look. We know we did wrong, but we're having a hard time. We need someone who understands. We need someone who still believes in us. We just need grace.
The same goes for our children.
I must admit that the excerpt got a lot of feedback and not all of it was positive. Many parents fear that “letting this behavior go” will lead to a disrespectful, unruly heathen. But the truth is that it’s perfectly normal for our human children to experience these very human emotions. We all do. I certainly cannot claim to have never had a bad attitude or a grumpy day, and yet I don’t consider myself a disrespectful or bad person. So, when my child struggles with the same thing, I don’t assign them a naughty label.
Hold on one more second before you judge me as permissive. I'm not insinuating that we don't correct bad attitudes and disrespect. I'm suggesting that we don't throw stones.
I could name a dozen reasons for my previous grumpy days. I could lay blame on stress or work or kids, but the truth is that I just didn't have myself under control. I wasn't managing my emotions or behavior well. It wasn't anyone's fault but my own. There have also been times when I've spoken to my children disrespectfully and had to apologize later. Even in my 40’s, I cannot always regulate my emotions well. When things get overwhelming for me, it’s difficult to maintain a perfectly pleasant and positive attitude.
And my kids? They’re far less mature than me. Their brains aren’t even fully developed yet. They have much less life experience and practice. How can I fault them for not being perfectly positive and pleasant at all times?
If you don't have bad attitudes or speak disrespectfully sometimes, I would love to know your secret. So far, I haven't met any perfect people. That's why I don't expect my children to be perfect, either. If I did, I'd be a hypocrite.
5 Tools To Tame Bad Attitudes
So, what do I do when my kids have a bad attitude? Well, that depends on the situation, but here are a few tools I use to tame the attitude.
1. Use humor. This is reserved for mild incidents. A favorite that never fails to get an eye roll from my teens: "Check yo-self before you wreck yo-self!" Not everything must be taken seriously. I realized early on that sometimes I just had to lighten up. Not everything is about ME. Not every bad mood is some kind of devious master plan to bring me down. I mean, I woke up in a bad mood just yesterday. Too much work, not enough sleep. It happens. And frankly, when I constantly make a big deal out of things, an unfortunate thing happens. They get bigger! Sometimes it’s best to let the little things slide.
2. Offer your warm presence. I know it’s pretty unconventional advice, but when my teens look like they’re in a sour mood, I lean in. "Looks like you're having a rough day, love. Need a hug? Would you like to talk about it?" I love when my friends sense that I’m sour and offer me love. I need that, you know? I need a hug and a chat. If my friends told me they didn’t want to hear from me until I was happy again, I don’t think I’d like them very much.
3. Look for a specific cause. Once, when my kids were much younger, I noticed SpongeBob was the little yellow culprit behind my son's sudden love of calling everything "stupid.” So, I stopped letting him watch SpongeBob for a while as he was clearly being negatively influenced by it. I explained how the attitudes that the characters display in cartoons don't have any real effect, but in real life, attitudes do affect others, and so do words. Another time, I noticed that my oldest got grumpy after too much screen time, so I made adjustments and things got better. There are a lot of factors in a kid’s life that could be knocking them off center. If we can find the root cause, we can help them adjust the attitude.
4. Teach. I started teaching my children about their emotions and how to regulate them at a young age. We had a Calming Corner that was very useful for regulation with soothing sensory items. Now, you can purchase social-emotional tools like The Time-In ToolKit to make emotional learning even easier. By giving them the vocabulary to express their emotions, they didn’t feel as much frustration which is often behind bad attitudes.
5. Model. I did my best to model self-regulation and modeled apologizing when I failed at it. My sons often saw me go to my own calming space to shift my mood. I would say, "Dudes, I have a case of the grumpies and I'm going to take 10, okay?" Or, if my bad attitude had affected them, “I’m sorry I was grouchy today. I worked really late last night and didn’t sleep well. I’m going to work on getting more rest!”
The goal is not to raise perfect people who never feel any negative human emotions. That obviously isn’t achievable. Rather than punishing kids for experiencing grouchiness and sour attitudes, we can help them learn to regulate, apologize when necessary, and reconnect. We can’t raise perfect kids, but we can raise emotionally intelligent and responsible kids, and that’s frankly enough to change the world.