Kids can be mean, especially to their parents. Whether it’s “You’re the worst mom,” “Why did Dad even marry you?” or “I hate you,” their slings and arrows can rival any other viciousness you’ll experience in your life.
Kids push our buttons. Even when we are pleasant, they can go on the attack. I recall one time when I planned a special occasion for my then 11-year-old son. Swimming suits and snacks packed, I surprised him and two friends at school pickup, ready to take them to an indoor swimming pool on a rainy winter day. When I presented juices and bagels for the ride, he growled, “You know I hate seeds on my bagel. You ruined everything.”
Although I would like to say I had a witty reply, I enacted my standard “Lay low and wear beige” fallback. Better to say nothing than humiliate him in front of his friends. But I was seething. I was thinking he was a rude and spoiled brat. But in my reflective mind, I knew he was in transition from his school day and probably feeling nervous about hosting this surprise plan.
Before we get to some good approaches for addressing this kind of nastiness, let’s review why it happens. Most kids say mean things to let off steam. Those emotions may stem from free-floating, general stress of the day or reflect important feelings that need airing and perhaps some problem-solving.
Most cruel provocations are not reflections of deep-seated problems in the parent-child relationship, nor are they indications of behavior problems or manifestations of character defects. Emotional dumps, insults and zingers spring forth from negative emotions, and it’s our challenge to summon our wise mind to figure out an optimal response.
Kids say nasty things because they’re exhausted, angry, disappointed and upset. Parents are their secure base, which means they can displace stress without fearing that parents will reject them or abandon them.
Kids trash their parents because they get sick of our rules, routines and expectations. We have power that they don’t have, so it feels good to pay us back with nasties to make us miserable, too. For instance, we may succeed at getting them to do chores to earn their screen time, but at least they can make us suffer a little for it.
Once they discern what is fueling the outburst, parents have options for thoughtful responding rather than reacting. We can use eight good approaches to building emotional regulation skills in kids: ignoring, empathy, deflection, save-for-later agenda, compassion, modeling of self-calming, humility and — most importantly — validation. Just know, going into it, that it can feel like you need the patience of Yoda, the self-control of Spock and the wisdom of Buddha.
Your choice of a response depends on what you determine is driving the emotional lashing out. Since it is natural to meet nasty with nasty, take a breath and figure out what your child’s negative emotion might be about, so you can choose wisely rather than react emotionally.
The “dump” is by far the most common nasty you’ll get from your child. All day long, children are expected to comply with adult expectations, follow rules, adapt to disappointments, and inhibit their impulses to hit, yell and rebel. We underestimate the amount of self-control they exercise on an hourly basis — or from minute to minute — even on a good day!
Like a dog that does a “shake-off” after a stressful interaction, kids are shaking off the negative emotion they feel, even when parents have done absolutely nothing to provoke them.
Kids use their willpower and neurological brake systems to emotionally regulate when around friends, teachers and other adults. Yes, parents are the dumping ground at home, because kids “use up” their self-control elsewhere. (We do the same thing — aren’t you often nicer to others than you are to your family members?)
Willpower is finite. Research has shown that adults and children alike are worn out by late afternoon. We all cave to our baser tendencies to let loose with negative emotions at the end of the day.
Because children have more than a decade of neurological maturation to go before they can shift their self-control into high gear, their nasties at home are guaranteed to be plentiful and happen often. Of course, outbursts can also occur first thing in the morning, since the day may start with bad moods and obligations. Life is so stressful!
By the age of 5, children are starting to understand the importance of compliance with rules and social norms. They want to fit in and be accepted in social settings outside of the home. It’s nature’s way. We want them to quell their urges and angry outbursts with others. But then they come home spent.
Example: Your 10-year-old comes home, throws his backpack on the floor and announces he is starving. You say hello and ask him in a friendly tone to please take his backpack to his room. He yells, “Why are you always so grouchy?”
Rationale for Approach
IGNORING is better than reacting to the nasty, especially since paying attention is reinforcing. Engaging with a rebuke may elicit more emotional discharges.
Confronting a young child, tween or teen with their “bad attitude” when they are unwinding from a day of hard work at school is not recommended. In this hypothetical example, the son isn’t really asking why you are grouchy. He just hates to be reminded of a rule when he is hungry, tired and stressed out from a long day of “coloring within the lines.” You want him to comply with your rule, but eliminating negative feelings about it is unrealistic.
EMPATHY is always a plus.
“Remembering rules, like putting your belongings in your room, is such a drag after a long day. I feel the same way sometimes.”
DEFLECTION: Focusing on reuniting with kindness can remind kids that you are kind — and generous.
“I’ve got some snacks for you in here.”
Insults and allegations
Insults can be innocuous and random shake-offs — such as “Why are you so grouchy?” — or they can be gut punches. They can be accusations that you want to explore or ignore. They can be outrageous or hold a kernel of truth. They can represent feelings you want to validate or feelings that are flotsam and jetsam from your child’s shipwreck of a day, worthy of follow-up once you sort through them with a cooler head. Parental discernment is required.
Example: You remind your 9-year-old daughter, Brook, to do her Saturday-morning chores of cleaning her room and the bathroom before she meets a friend. She screams, “You never make Leo do anything. You are a terrible mother. You aren’t supposed to love one kid more than another. I hate these chores. You’re stupid. Nobody else I know has to do them. I hate my life!”
“It is so, so hard for older kids to have more expectations than younger ones. Chores are a bummer when you just want Saturdays to be all about fun. I see that you are furious about it. When you finish your chores, it will be great to go to Thea’s and enjoy the fun she has planned. For the record, I love you with all my heart. We’ll talk about Leo and chores later.”
Rationale for Approach
VALIDATION does not mean approval or agreement. It means you “get it” from some perspective. The goal of validation in response to extreme emotions and thoughts is to convey that you understand some essence of what has been said. A major point — do not use the word “but” after you validate, as it nullifies the validation. It’s “both/and” logic, not “yes, but” arguing, which can infuriate.
The SAVE FOR LATER is just that. Maybe Leo needs a chore or Brook wants to vacuum instead of cleaning the bathroom. Giving kids choices encourages cooperation.
Two things can be true at the same time: You can validate that Brook is furious about doing chores and that you still expect her to complete them before her playdate. Note that this reply doesn’t address Brook’s statements that she hates her life, that you are a “terrible mother” or that you love Leo more than you love her. Brook’s declarations are most likely related to her anger about chores, but you can explore those other matters later.
When kids insult their parents while angry about chores and routines, it’s good to keep in mind that it is a shake-off, not an allegation you should feel compelled to argue or defend. Remember, all attention is potentially reinforcing. Talking about random contentions could increase them if you get into a long debate about the importance of chores and how justified you are to impose them.
One of the most common traps we fall into when we are insulted or criticized is “arguing about the truth.” There are no absolute truths. You’ve heard that one, right? Your kiddo is angry, so she perceives you to be terrible, mean, unfair and stupid. You can argue the point, or decide that negative emotions stir up all sorts of feelings, thoughts and allegations!
An accusation about preferential love for a sibling is a sticky issue. Toddlers are cute and often receive more open adoration than brooding 9-year-olds. Defending equal love can send you down a rabbit hole of overtalking. Remember that line from Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”? There is something to that.
We can tuck the feedback away for later and be more mindful about increasing positive regard for our prickly-pear kids and saving sloppy kisses on the little ones for when the pear is not around.
Example: Eugene, age 13, has a quirky 10-year-old sister who embarrasses him regularly. She wears stickers on her forehead, sings loudly and flaunts Pretty Kitty merch like a bad TikTok ad. He says he hates her and that his mom and dad flunk as parents. Today, he had a meltdown and screamed, “You are psycho! No wonder you gave birth to a psycho. I do not want to be related to this weirdo family.” Once he cooled down a bit, the parents decided that the best approach was validation.
“We totally get it. You are at the age when looking cool is of top importance. When you’re peeved, you want to slug something. While we adore your sister and her individuality, we know your friends laugh at her, which humiliates you. We know it takes every scrap of your self-control not to react to her violently. We appreciate your effort. We have faith that you can white-knuckle it through this phase, but we know it is really, really hard.”
Rationale for Approach
VALIDATION: These parents know that Eugene is flooding constantly these days due to the hormones of puberty, the brain changes of adolescence and the temperamental clash of these two very different kids. It is tempting to lecture about the importance of kindness, self-control and standing up for his sister, but Eugene is more likely to be kinder to his sister after being validated for his emotions than if he received a lecture on virtues (after a snort, or two).
Example: Luci, age 12, has a dad who believes she lacks grit and a work ethic when it comes to homework. She makes almost all A’s, but he worries that she is getting used to sliding. They’ve had numerous power struggles about homework quality. After he remarked on the short amount of time she spent doing homework today, she accused him of being a control freak, and then cried out, “I’m sorry if I’m not the perfect student you were when you were my age!”
“Luci, I apologize if I ever gave you the idea that you are less of a good student than I was. I happen to know that way more is expected of you at school than was expected of me when I was a kid. I also know that school achievement is important to you, and you are doing great at school. You are right that I hover too much. I get anxious about school stuff. I’m sorry.”
Rationale for the Approach
VALIDATION: Luci’s dad has reflected on how his lectures about grit have hurt her and insulted her. He knows his anxiety about her homework hinders more than helps.
HUMILITY: He feels that there is truth in her accusation that he has been too controlling. He also knows that she is more likely to work hard with acknowledgment of effort than criticism.
Sometimes when children criticize us with big zingers, they are accurate! Acknowledging our own mistakes is one of the most effective ways we can influence our children to do the same. Humility and admitting when we are wrong strengthens trust. While this zinger might sting, the strong character this father demonstrated will build Luci’s own character more than another lecture on grit.
Alternatively, a lot of zingers are just plain inaccurate. When kids have meltdowns, they are like volcanos erupting — all sorts of random emotional debris spews forth. And the explosive material can be vile.
When humans flood emotionally, their frontal lobes — that is, their thinking and deliberative brains — go offline. Their emotional systems take over, and cognitive distortions proliferate. These extreme thoughts include “all or nothing” thinking (for example: “I’m the victim and you are the villain,” “I am right and you are wrong”); catastrophizing; over-generalizing; and mental filtering (e.g., seeing only the negative things that support their perspective and none of the alternatives).
At these times, parents need to remember that nothing is more important than our own self-calming, so that we don’t add fuel to the fire. Arguing, protesting, scolding or threatening will keep the volcano erupting. Validation of negative feelings helps a little, and your own self-calming can help a lot.
Example: Jared, age 8, has just learned that he can’t go to a friend’s birthday party because of a previous commitment to attend a family reunion. His mom dreads Jared’s meltdowns, but she knows he needs practice with emotional regulation. Jared says he hates her, will run away and wishes she were dead. He screams that she is the meanest mom in the world. He threatens to go to the reunion and throw all of the food off the table and tell everyone there that she is “abusive.”
“I get it. You are thinking about how much fun you will have at the party. I’m standing in the way of that. You are extremely mad at me. You want me to really, really get how angry you are. You feel like I’m hurting you, so you want me to hurt just as badly. I understand. I’m going sit here with you until you let it all out. I’m going to take some big breaths, because when you are upset, I am upset. I need to calm myself down.”
Rationale for the Approach
VALIDATION: Jared’s mom focuses on feelings, not the content of Jared’s words.
DEFLECTION: She deflects the vitriol and acknowledges his misery instead.
COMPASSION: She appreciates his perspective in this moment when she seems cruel to not cave to his desire, but she doesn’t take his fury personally.
MODELING CALMING: She tries to control only herself, not him or his feelings.
As with many of the above examples of emotional outbursts, you may think Jared’s mother is indulgent or permissive. After all, don’t we all value respect, self-control and obedience in our kids?
What we focus on during an outburst depends on our assessment of what is driving the behavior. And a good expression to keep in mind when we feel the urge to lecture or express our own hurt feelings is “You might be right, but are you effective?”
These kids didn’t break any rules, unless your rule is that kids shouldn’t have or express negative emotions. Since that idea is both unrealistic and inconsistent with achieving healthy emotional adjustment, you could consider the goals of effective management of outbursts, modeling your own self-control, and discerning approaches that help and don’t hurt.
All of us get stressed and have our own outbursts. Try as we might to employ the eight good approaches for handling emo dumps, insults and zingers, we’ll have our own buttons pushed and react ourselves. We will meet nasty with nasty. We’ll threaten, argue and lecture when we wish we had validated feelings.
Since another parenting goal is self-forgiveness, we’ll only try to be good enough, not perfect. With these kinds of nasties, a realistic goal is striving to have “Yoda” parenting moments just some of the time.