Parenting a Child With an Attitude Problem


By Ron Hindbaugh M.A.


When a parent is trying to talk with a child and his or her shoulders drop and the head tilts a little it is difficult not to feel annoyed. Negative body language which includes such things as rolling the eyes, looking disgusted, stomping off, or slamming doors are the child's way of sending us a message. The problem is that because no words are attached, it is sometimes difficult to determine what the message is. Is it disappointment in themselves? Are they saying that the parent is unfair? Or are they feeling hurt for some reason?

The problem is that if parents try to find out what the child is trying to tell them, or if the parent orders the child to stop the attitude, the problem of communication worsens. It does not improve. The best response that a parent can make to negative body language is to say what needs to be said in a calm and loving manner and then walk away. "I know that you must be feeling bad that you cannot have the car tonight, but the car is not available." If parents can ignore the "poor attitude" then the focus of the conversation can be on the problem. Focusing on the "attitude" does little to help the child. The less the parent says the better.

To use this approach, a parent must be secure in themselves and know that ignoring what the poor attitude does not mean they are weak or "allowing disrespect." You cannot teach respect in a confronting manner. Addressing the apparent problem and waiting until things have calmed down works much better. It allows the parent to let the child know that they are willing to listen to any concerns the child may have.

When they listen, parents should not argue or try to convince the child that they are "right." The major message from the parent to the child is one of concern, sympathy, and unconditional love. The parent needs to let the child know they are willing to listen to any message that the child has to offer. "I understand why you were upset when you could not have the car. I would have been upset also." The parent may or may not be able to meet the needs of the child once they have been articulated by the child, but they can show their concern by listening.

If the child refuses to talk to the parent about what is of concern to them it is best for the parent just to let the child know that they are available to listen whenever the child wants to talk.  "If you feel like you’re up to telling me what is bothering you, I'd sure be a good listener."

Another way to handle negative body language is to give the child permission to use it. "Hey John I have something I want to share with you. When I am done you may want to melt me with that laser beam look of yours." When children realize that the message they are sending to a parent with their negative body language does not have the desired effect it will, many times, disappear. If parents are patient some positive dialog may eventually develop.

Pouting is another non-verbal sign of displeasure. When the child is pouting he or she is really begging to be listened to. If the parent asks what is wrong the child has achieved the desired audience and the parent is caught in the child's trap. It is sometimes effective if the parent says something like, "It looks like you are upset right now. When you are able to get your thoughts together I'll be glad to listen. I'll be in the kitchen doing the dishes." The parent must then break eye contact and let the child think.

If parents can see negative body language as the child's attempt to save face when he or she is not pleased with a situation, then parents can see children's "attitude problems" for what it is, an immature way of trying to address a problem. Parents who remember that they are the adults will be able to remain adults when kids use immature behavior to communicate and/or challenge.