How to deal with disrespectful behaviour

Recognize Mr. Grumpy? Maybe you’re more familiar with Miss Whiny? Good news: There are plenty of ways to fix a bad attitude

By Cheryl Embrett

How to deal with disrespectful behaviour

Whether your little darling is a tot, teen or somewhere in between, you’re going to come up against sass and sulking at some point. “Children will push buttons,” says California parenting expert Michele Borba, author of Don’t Give Me That Attitude! 24 Rude, Selfish, Insensitive Things Kids Do and How to Stop Them. “Once they know it works, the behaviour becomes a habit.” The defiant stamp of the foot that was so adorable in your toddler can spiral into not-so-cute tantrums, backtalk and even entitlement. Here’s how to rescue a good kid from a bad attitude.

Little ones may talk back as early as age three. They are natural copiers and will try out new words and intonations to get your attention. But the tween years are prime time for backtalk as kids strive for independence. When Leah Armidale’s* daughter started grade six, she suddenly morphed into an eye-rolling, sarcastic preteen. “I know it’s because it makes her feel more grown up,” says Armidale ruefully, “but it drives me crazy.” Her nine-year old son is starting to mimic his older sister, and Armidale dreads having to contend with rudeness on both fronts.

The treatment

Nip it in the bud. Whether disrespectful behaviour shows up at age four or eight, act on it the second you see it, says Terry Carson, a parenting coach in Toronto. “If children don’t learn right from the get-go that ‘this is not acceptable in our home,’ they can become very mouthy by the time they’re tweens or teens.”

Stay calm. Yelling or getting irritated shifts the focus from your child’s behaviour to your anger, and sets you up for a power struggle. “The trick is to respectfully ignore your kid until she treats you politely,” says Borba. With older children, that might mean leaving the room for a cooling-off period.

Model respect. Do you or your partner ever use a flippant tone? Armidale admits she sometimes shows a little ’tude of her own. “When I hear Christina* say things to her brother like ‘Grow up, won’t you?’ I worry that she’s learned it from me.”

I feel like I’ve spent half my life following my 10-year-old around with reminders (Recharge your iPod. Finish your homework. Pack your knapsack. Write a thank-you note…). I finally realized she was shirking her responsibilities because she had a full-time personal assistant (me!) to take care of everything for her.

The treatment

Spell out expectations. “A big part of changing this attitude is to flat out require responsibilities,” says Borba. These could include household chores (watering plants, making beds), personal care (brushing teeth), personal possessions (putting toys away) and school (return library books). Preteens and teens hate being told what to do, so offer them a choice whenever possible (“Would you rather cut the lawn or put out the garbage this week?”).

Set clear consequences. Explain to your four-year-old that if he forgets to put away his toys, he won’t be able to play with them after nap time. If your school-aged child forgets about her homework until bedtime, have her set the alarm 30 minutes early for the next morning so she can do it before school. “The best consequences are the ones directly related to the behaviour, so your child learns something,” says Carson.

Don’t accept excuses. My daughter tries to blame, rationalize and otherwise get herself off the hook for her forgetfulness. When her library books were overdue (yet again), she’d shrug it off with “How was I supposed to know they were late?” Fair enough at age four, but not at 10. I’ve since set up a “library return bag” on her bedroom door and made it clear that overdue fines come out of her allowance. There haven’t been any since.

There’s a little girl down the street who reminds me of the ditty When she was good, she was very, very good. But when she was bad, she was horrid. Whenever she doesn’t get what she wants, she has a Chernobyl-grade meltdown that leaves the entire neighbourhood shaking.

Younger kids usually resort to tantrums because they don’t know how to express their needs — and because they’ve learned that tantrums work, says Borba. Tweens and teens have tantrums too, especially during puberty when they’re riding a hormonal roller coaster. Instead of throwing themselves on the ground shrieking, they’re more likely to sulk (the silent tantrum), argue or slam doors.

The treatment

Avoid heat-of-the moment decisions. Once you start caving to toddler tantrums or bribing older kids out of a sulk, they’ll try the same tactic the next time, and the next, and the next…

Know the triggers. Being hungry, tired or thirsty can push little tykes (and big ones too) over the edge, so keep track of when junior last had a snack, how far he’s walked, or how long he’s been cooped up in the car. It helps to offer options (“Do you want to do your homework before or after dinner?”). All kids like to have a sense of control.

Refuse to be drawn into a debate. “You can’t think straight when you’re angry,” says Scott Wooding, a child psychologist in Calgary. “Once you’ve made your decision and stated your reason, stop. Look your child in the eye and don’t say anything else. You’d be surprised how powerful that is.”

Discuss coping strategies. Let your child know it’s OK to get upset, but not to throw a fit. Teach younger kids words to express their feelings (mad, sad, scared), says Borba. Talk to older kids about what provoked the outburst and how they can better handle it. When my daughter is overly tired or cranky, she plunks herself down and starts chanting “om.” She’s seen me head off a few meltdowns of my own that way.

You can’t walk into a store without your son wanting half the candy rack, or arrive home from work without him asking “What did you bring me?”

Says Borba: “The main reason our kids are so materialistic is that we’ve allowed it, and we live in such a materialistic world. We’ve bought them only the best brand names, and tried motivating them to ‘do good’ by rewarding them with possessions.”

The treatment

Know your limits. Decide which issues you will not, under any circumstances, give in to (filling up on treats before dinner, for example) and be consistent. “The average child will whine nine times,” says Borba. “The average parent will give in the ninth time.” Your child needs to learn at an early age that you mean what you say and he isn’t above the rules.

Give them their own money. When little Megan starts clamouring for you to buy her stuff (usually around age three or four), it’s time for an allowance. Whether or not you link it to chores, experts say an allowance is a big antidote to the gimmes. My daughter is a lot more discerning when she has to spend her own $12 on a hair band.

Don’t forget to say thanks. Our kids do thoughtful deeds throughout the day, but we often overlook them, says Borba. A simple acknowledgment from you is one of the easiest ways to model and boost a gratitude attitude in your child.

Brenda Stanton’s son started digging in his heels at an early age. “I had a call at work on his first day of preschool,” says the Caledon, Ont., mother of two. “He refused to stop making farting noises and disrupting the class.”

All kids test boundaries sometimes, but some constantly push the envelope — and everyone’s limits.

The treatment

Fight (only) the good fight. “You don’t have to make every issue a 10,” advises Carson. “Allowing a cookie before dinner may be a three or four, as opposed to something that could affect your child’s safety, such as playing in the street.”

“Incentivize.” Time outs and other punishments had no effect on Lori Marcuz’s strong-willed daughter. But when Marcuz set up a reward chart — six checks meant a skate at the park, for example — the seven-year-old became a lot more agreeable.

“Grow” the rules. Peer pressure and the need to fit in are what drive tweens and teens. Typical arguments involve pushing limits so they can do what other kids do, says Borba. Be open to building in more freedom and responsibility as your child grows.

*Names changed by request.

This article was originally published on Sep 20, 2002

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