Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

8 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 even 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!

Here's how to find your way through that minefield to connect with your child and stop the drama.

1. Calm yourself before you respond. 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 from what we say. If your default tone is respectful, that will be your child's default tone as well.

2. Set your limit -- respectfully and gently. Instead of a reprimand, point out very simply that his words hurt, acknowledge that he must be upset, and invite him to talk about it: "Ouch! You know we don't speak to each other that way in this house. You must be angry or upset to use that tone. What's going on?"

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. The good news is, she's showing you all that upset instead of holding it inside, taking it out on her brother, or hitting someone. What she needs most right now is for you to understand 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 safe to 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. And maybe the real upset is something deeper, and he doesn't even know what it really is. Your compassion is what makes it safe enough for him to feel those tangled emotions and let them go.

5. If your child meets your empathy with more anger, stop talking. Usually when humans who are upset really feel understood, they start to cry. But sometimes those feelings are unbearable and they verbally attack the empathizer. In that case, just stop talking and feel all that pain. It will show on your face. Take a deep breath. You don't have to say anything to communicate your empathy.

6. Model taking responsibility by acknowledging any part of the upset that you contributed to. "Oh, no wonder you're so upset, Honey. I completely forgot that I told you we could finish that tonight. And now the time has gotten away from us. I am so sorry! How can we fix this?" 

7. Listen more, so your child can sort out solutions. Resist the urge to tell your child how to solve the problem, unless you helped create it. Instead, listen and ask questions.

As your child vents, she'll begin to calm down. That's when she may think of some solutions. They may be terrific: "Can I walk to school with Emily on the first day of first grade?" 

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... what might happen then? She might realize that her idea isn't so great and redirect herself. Or you might have to set a limit: "I hear you'd rather stay home .... first grade 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 own anxiety so you don't steam-roll your child. This problem solving process is how she builds confidence and competence.

8. Later, help him reflect on what happened. This develops emotional intelligence, by laying down neural circuits in the brain that allow your child to better manage his emotions. But stay away from shame and blame, or your child will never want to talk with you. Kids don't learn from lectures, either.

Instead, 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 by your words and your tone ...  Then I saw all those big feelings and I realized you were very upset, and that's why you spoke to me that way. I'm so glad you told me about..." 

Notice that you haven't scolded or demanded an apology. That just creates defensiveness. 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!"

What if she doesn't? Remind her that you're always there to listen when she feels upset. She never needs to yell to get her point across. Ask her what you could do to be helpful next time she's upset. Is there anything you could do differently to help her? Then ask whether there's anything she could do differently in expressing her upset, so she doesn't hurt other people's feelings. Again, don't lecture or shame. Just be matter of fact. Then give her a hug and change the subject to something that gets you both laughing, to dispel any lingering tension.

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.

Over time, your child realizes that she doesn't have to yell to be heard and get her needs met. And the silver lining? So do you!



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