Q: I’m looking for advice on how to deal with my almost-6-year-old’s exceedingly snarky attitude. I know that eye-rolling, talking back, etc., are fairly age-appropriate, but, as our day-care provider put it, she’s the “sassiest little girl” she’s ever worked with in her decades as a preschool teacher. I was similar as a child, and my parents told me repeatedly that my attitude stunk and that I was unpleasant to be around. It wasn’t until I was older and realized how many friendships had ended because of my attitude that I was able to make a change. What can I do for my daughter? I have no idea whether this “have attitude, lose friends, learn from mistake” process is inevitable. On the one hand, I want her to be a little sassy, unafraid to speak her mind and not polite to a fault. On the other hand, how do I get her to see that this level of attitude may alienate her? I don’t want to change her. I just want her to understand the value of a filter to temper how she comes across.
A: There are a number of red flags in this question, and I want to address them so that we can clarify the real issue. I am not being critical of you; rather, I want to highlight a few concerns so that we can identify what you can change in your parenting life.
First, eye-rolling, talking back, etc., are not age-appropriate behaviors for your daughter. Although we sometimes see this in children of many ages, constant snark and sass are not appropriate. This is a sign of deeper frustration. I want to steer you away from the “little girls are just sassy” way of thinking. It is the equivalent of saying “boys will be boys” when little boys are violent, and I know we can look deeper here.
Second, sassiness and snark are not genetic. I know it is easy to see yourself in your child, but sassiness is not passed down through genes. Am I saying that I don’t see generations of strong-willed women, one after another? Of course not. But this is more nurture than nature. If you look at temperament scales, outgoing parents can have outgoing children, and shy parents can have shy children. But sassiness? There is no sassiness temperament. Sassiness is a sign of something else.
Third, it can be fairly normal for children to be rude at home while acting like angels at school, but your daughter is being called the “sassiest little girl” in day care from a provider who has decades of experience. What is the day-care provider doing about this? Is everyone shrugging their shoulders like, “Well, she’s just completely obnoxious, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” I am concerned that there are lots of labels being put on your daughter but no help being offered.
Fourth, you are identifying with your daughter in a way that is preventing you from helping her. It seems clear from your note that you had a tough time when you were younger and paid for it. This suffering does not have to be your daughter’s fate, and you don’t have to either go nuclear or just let her sort it out on her own. She’s almost 6 and needs some strong guidance, so let’s get to it.
Regular and chronic sassiness and disrespect are a sign of deep discouragement and defensiveness in a child. Let’s say you’re married and don’t feel like your spouse is listening to you and your opinions. You feel shut out, dismissed and rejected. Your impulses could go a couple of ways, depending on your alarm instincts. If you’re like me, you are going to fight. You are going to confront, get mean and attack. Others retreat. They shut down, walk away and seek to avoid this pain. But the fighters? They will push, and then they will shut people out. So if your spouse asks you for your opinion and you have felt down and out for a long time, your heart will say: “Oh, heck no. I don’t trust this at all.” And you very well may give an eye-roll and a smart comment. Your heart is saying: “You have been too hurt by this dismissal. I am going to protect you, even if it hurts the situation.”
Your daughter is defending herself against listening to people and taking instruction because her heart and mind have decided that is not safe. There is a little wall around your daughter’s heart, and every time she even perceives that she is being attacked or bullied, the wall springs up, protects her and becomes stronger.
She is not necessarily doing anything wrong. For very sensitive children, it’s a natural defense against vulnerability. They are taking in so much sensory information and experiencing so many emotions that their minds and hearts become overwhelmed and say, “That’s enough,” and the children shut down.
First bit of homework: Stop calling your daughter sassy. Rename this emotion discouragement, and you will instantly begin to have more empathy for her. Labeling her as sassy doesn’t help her mature. It keeps her boxed in as a pain in the bottom, and you both don’t need that. Also, don’t take all this eye-rolling personally. Does this mean that you like it or don’t care? Of course not. Just remember that she is reacting to emotions of alarm and protection. She is not consciously trying to hurt you.
Second bit of homework: You cannot demand respect or kindness from her. It will make her even more frustrated. The way into her heart is through small doses of connection in non-threatening ways. For instance, is there a project you can work on together where she can find her voice and have agency over something? Dedicate only a bit of time to this every day, because too much one-on-one time will discourage her.
When she is sassy, relabel it as frustration right then and there. When she rolls her eyes, say, “I see how frustrated you are with this decision.” The more we can put names to her feelings, the more we can move her from “sassy,” “snarky” and “bad” to “frustrated,” “discouraged” and “sad.” These words will help you communicate with her about her true feelings.
Place some boundaries on her behavior. For instance, let her know that if she has a play date and acts this way, her friend will leave immediately. Make good on this the first time it happens. She will throw a tantrum of epic proportions, but as long as you don’t punish her and put your relationship on the line, she will adapt. Don’t draw boundaries everywhere (you will never stop fighting), but choose your lines thoughtfully and stick with your rule.
Finally, take a listening stance whenever possible. When she says something rude, say: “Sounds like you really don’t like that idea. I wonder what you are really thinking.” Then pause. See what happens.
I will warn you that if your daughter has been acting this way for a long time, things won’t work themselves out overnight. Children who push boundaries can be frustrating, so do what you need to do to keep your feelings in check as you do this heavy emotional lifting. But this can get better! Good luck.
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