Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

6 Things You Can Do When Your Child Is Belligerent

"My daughter was being so rude and belligerent. She was screaming at me about everything, so finally I just lost patience and yelled at her to go to her room. Then she burst into tears and sobbed and sobbed. Finally she recovered enough to say she was scared of first grade. I hadn't realized....." - Tara

When children are having a hard time, their feelings usually explode at the people with whom they feel safe -- Us!  It's natural for us to get angry, reprimand, tell them to behave, or send them off to calm down.  But when kids act rude and belligerent, they aren't trying to give us a hard time.  They're trying to send us an SOS.

If we respond by yelling, threatening, or sending them away to "calm down," we shut the door they've opened, and leave them to struggle on their own.  Of course, your child's belligerence might look more like a mine field than an open door! But it's the best she can do at the moment, and who ever said parenting was easy?  Here's how to navigate that minefield of belligerence.

1. Remind yourself that your child is sending you an SOS.  Naturally, you get triggered when your child is rude to you.  If you can take a deep breath and stay calm, you're modeling a critical skill for your child: self-regulation. Kids learn much more from what we do than what we say. If your default tone is respectful, that will be your child's default tone as well.

2. Give a gentle reminder that his tone is hurtful.  But instead of a reprimand, acknowledge that he must be hurting and invite him to talk about it: "Ouch! You must be so upset to speak to me that way...What's going on, Sweetie?"

3. Be prepared for the dam to break. Your child's response to your kind invitation to talk will probably be to unleash a torrent of upset in your direction. You'll get an earful about all the reasons her life is terrible, unfair, unbearable -- and maybe even that it's all your fault! Now's the time to use the time honored parenting mantra: Don't take it personally!  We all say things we don't mean when we're upset. What she needs you to hear is how upset she is.

4. Empathize. I know. He yells at you, and you're supposed to empathize? But that's what helps him feel those emotions, which is what heals them. "Oh, Sweetie...No wonder you're upset...I see..."  Resist the urge to talk him out of his feelings or minimize them. Of course, he's over-reacting. He's been storing up a lot of upsets. Your compassion is what makes it safe enough for him to feel them and let them go.

5. Listen, so she can sort out solutions. As she calms down, your child may think of some solutions.  They may be terrific: "Can I walk to school with Emily tomorrow?" Your response?  "What a great idea! Anything else we can do?"

Or her ideas may be not so terrific: "I don't need to go to first grade...I'll just stay home!"   Your response?  "Hmm...I hear you'd rather stay home....school feels scary to you right now...Let's think of some other ideas that might help.... What else could we do?"

It's fine to offer ideas, but manage your anxiety so you don't steamroll your child. This problem solving process is how she builds confidence and competence.

6. Later, help him reflect on what happened.  This develops emotional intelligence, by actually laying down neural circuits in the brain that allow your child to better manage his emotions. So summon up your compassion and sense of humor, and offer a gentle conversation opener: "I've been working hard to stay calm lately....But it wasn't easy for me to stay calm when you were so upset today....At first I felt hurt...Then I saw all those big feelings!  I'm so glad you told me about ..."  Of course, if you scold or demand an apology, your child resists. If, instead, you state your own experience and help him explore his, he'll have the empowering opportunity to see how he affects others. And you may be surprised to see him offer a heartfelt apology, a thank you, or an "I love you!"

Yes, this takes more work than sending your child to her room.  But as you repeat this process throughout her childhood, your child learns emotional intelligence, empathy and problem-solving skills. You deepen your relationship with her. Finally, she realizes that she doesn't have to yell to be heard.  And so do you!

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids


"Dr.Laura's daily emails are the perfect way to start the day with love and compassion"

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