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Not thrilled by your mouthy preschooler or your back-talking tween? You’re not alone. Correcting perceived attitude problems is a top parenting concern, and there’s often no easy fix. In fact, this stubbornly persistent behavior may be biologically driven. Though you may not turn a grouchy grumbler into positive Polly overnight, you can help your child learn to be more respectful and polite in short order. Here’s how to ditch your kid’s problem ‘tude and enjoy a happier family, starting now.
EARLY LEARNING YEARS • Ages 2-6
Though you’re probably peeved when your 2-year-old starts spouting sass, know that it’s normal for toddlers to act out at times. Toddlers and preschoolers are still learning emotional and behavioral regulation — the ability to recognize and rein in unwanted attitudes and actions. They don’t yet how talk about what’s bothering them; they need your help.
They won’t get it right all the time, says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, M.D., Ed.D., New York Times best-selling author, and expert for the online learning resource, Understood.org.
“So much of a child’s attitude depends on inborn temperament, so don’t be surprised if one preschooler can use words to work out conflicts, and another can’t.”
- Name emotions. Help your tot learn to manage his attitude by modeling the building blocks of emotional regulation, including using words to help your child talk about his feelings (“I feel mad/sad/glad right now.”).
- Take a break to cool off when needed.
- Let your child know there will be consequences, like time-outs or limited access to favorite toys, when attitude continues.
ELEMENTARY YEARS • Ages 7-12
School-age children can certainly dish out attitude, but there’s a reason for this stormy season. With new social pressures, growing academic responsibilities, and the advent of puberty, the tween years create the perfect storm of strong emotions and angry outbursts. Help correct a negative attitude with positive parenting tactics, advises licensed psychotherapist Sara B. Thatcher, LCSW, of Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Avoid talking about what you don’t want with phrases like ”stop being rude” and “don’t swear,” and instead talk about what you would like to see. Saying “Please use kind words” in the same tone of voice you want your child to use is more effective than repeatedly shouting “STOP,” Thatcher notes. Let them know that if they want to be treated with respect, they must be respectful to their family members.
- Spark more positive behavior with a “kindness challenge:” each time kids show kindness or respect, toss a quarter (or another sum) into a kindness jar. When the jar is full, the family can use the cash for something fun.
TEEN YEARS • Ages 13-17
Sweet one day, feisty the next — remind you of your teen? So how can you distinguish normal teenage attitude from potential problem behavior caused by depression, anxiety, or a mood disorder? First, know that your moody teen is likely just reacting to the pressures and hormones of this age; most kids don’t have a mood disorder. “Concerning ‘red flags’ are excessive irritability, frequent bouts of tearfulness, explosive outbursts, significant changes in appetite resulting in weight loss or weight gain, sleep problems, and self-harming behaviors,” says Thatcher.
If your child’s poor attitude is causing problems at home or school, reach out to a school counselor, family therapist, or your child’s pediatrician. “I tell parents, never worry alone. If you’re worried about your teen, talk to him or her about your concerns,” says Hallowell. Building a strong bond with your teen will help see you both through the highs and lows that come with high school.
- Keep lines of communication open. Teens, particularly as they mature, withdraw from family in their flight to independence. Their attitude is often designed to keep you at bay. But they still want — and need — your support as they learn more about making decisions on their own. So pick your battles and be willing to talk during side-by-side activities, like driving to an event or playing pickup basketball. By letting them know you’re available, the storms will eventually pass.
—Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.