"Every time you complain your irritability -- like a virus -- is neurologically picked up by every person who hears your voice or sees your face. So by all means, train your brain to be optimistic and positive because (according to 30+ years of longitudinal research conducted by Duke University and the Mayo Clinic), it will literally add years to your life." -- Mark Waldman
What's wrong with complaining? It seeds discontent and surrounds you and everyone around you with negativity. When we listen to complaints of any kind, we get demoralized. Whether we're making the complaints or listening to them, our minds start on a cycle of negative thinking.
Researchers say the average person complains 30 times a day. But there are people who never complain. They're usually folks who rate themselves as very happy. Their lives, from the outside, aren't any different than anyone else's. They didn't win the lottery. But their relationships are closer. People like them. They live longer. They generally stay in a good mood. And while I haven’t yet seen any research on this, I’d bet they’re happier parents.
So why do we complain? Sometimes to blow off steam, which we all need to do at times. Sometimes because we want to feel appreciated, seen, heard -- which we all need. Sometimes to connect with others by commiserating, which can lead to nice connections over mutual complaints.
But sometimes when we complain, we're avoiding taking responsibility to change something we might be able to change if we worked at it: It's not OUR fault!
We THINK we're asking for change from the other person by complaining. Both parents and kids often complain as a way to lobby each other to behave differently. With parents, it could be called nagging. "I can't believe you left your jacket on the floor again!" With kids, it's an attempt to elicit parental intervention of some sort: "He's picking on me!" or "All the other kids' parents let them!"
You may think that expressing your discontent will spur your kids to change, but it doesn’t work that way. Instead, it makes them feel bad about themselves, or even give up on trying to please you. Kids don’t change because we complain. They change because we set up structures to help them develop new habits or new skills and support them to make the change. Or because they get their needs met and feel good about themselves. Or simply because they mature.
Just to be clear: Complaining is something we do instead of addressing a situation.
- Expressing emotions such as sadness is not complaining.
- Stating your needs or giving a child a directive in a respectful way is not complaining.
The goal is not to become a doormat, but a person of integrity, willing to take responsibility for the changes that need to happen. How can you break the habit of complaining?
1. Notice any time you start to complain, and bite your tongue.
Take a deep breath. Give up the gratification of reviewing why you’re right and commit to being a positive force in the situation. Look for solutions instead of blame.
2. Are you complaining from feeling powerless?
“Nobody around here ever does any work except me!” Take a deep breath and reaffirm to yourself that you're in charge, so if you really want to, you can change the situation -- or at least how you're responding to it.
3. Are you complaining from habit?
“You kids have been driving me crazy the whole trip!” If so, remind yourself that your child believes everything you tell him about himself and tries to live up to it.
4. Are you complaining from frustration?
“This kid never does his homework, no matter how much I yell. I give up!" Research shows that kids learn best when we give them the structure to learn good habits, such as sitting with them while they do their homework until they master the skill of sitting down to tackle something unpleasant, and learn to monitor their own work. If you’re frustrated, maybe it’s time to try a strategy that will give you the results you want, instead of lamenting that what you've been doing isn't working.
5. Regardless of why you’re complaining, consider what action you could take to change the situation.
Find better ways to entertain your kids on family trips? Orchestrate a family clean-up for fifteen minutes every evening? Eliminate TV on weeknights? Sit with your child during homework? Make a plan. Make it happen.
6. Challenge your family to live this week complaint-free.
Put a jar on your counter. Every time anyone complains, that person has to verbalize an expression gratitude in place of the complaint, and if they are old enough to receive an allowance, a paycheck, or birthday money, they have to put a quarter in the jar.
- "Not chicken again!" might become "I am so grateful we get to have a healthy dinner and that Mom cooked it for us!"
- "Can't you ever brush your hair?" might become "It makes me so happy to see your beautiful shining face!"
- "My boss did it again!" might become "I am grateful to have a job and a paycheck to feed my family."
At the end of the month, donate your quarters to charity. You'll be amazed how much money you raise for your favorite charity as you re-train yourself.
Soon, you’ll be able to restate every complaint into an intention of change for the better -- or even an expression of gratitude.
"The opposite of complaining is gratitude. We should talk about things we are thankful for rather than things we are unhappy about. Our minds are like steering wheels, they take us in the direction we point them. If we focus on negative things, we will notice and attract more negative things in our life. If we focus on positive things, we will move in the direction of greater happiness and more success." - Will Bowen