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How do I stop my child from being so rude to me?

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Q: I have a 5-year-old (soon to be 6), and I'm struggling with how to deal with what we might call rude communication patterns. For instance, on a recent afternoon, she came out of her room, saw that I was in the kitchen and screamed at me: "Where's my dinner?! I thought it would be ready by now!" She also did this a week or so ago. Although she had a snack after school (she started face-to-face school a few weeks ago), she was probably hungry, even though it was a little early for dinner. I think she has pent-up stress from her new school environment, but I also know it's not okay for her to communicate like that with me. After she calmed down, we talked a bit about it, but I'm wondering whether you have general advice about how parents should talk and respond to young kids when they communicate in such a rude way. I know it's her age and circumstances, but I also know it's not okay. Thanks!

A: I can collectively feel everyone’s left eyebrow go up when they read: “Where’s my dinner?!” Most parents who have parented a 6-year-old have encountered some of this sass. And, like you, most parents have sat there with this dilemma: On one hand, we understand that the child is hangry (hungry and angry) and is also facing the transition of in-person school after months of being at home; on the other hand, her bossy commands are not a communication trend that you welcome (i.e., this level of disrespect really makes parents mad).

Your primary question is excellent: Is there “general advice about how parents should talk and respond to young kids when they communicate in such a rude way?” Here’s some general advice: We parents talk way too much, and that, sadly, is the crux of many of our problems. Although peaceful and loving communication is almost always a good idea, there is a parenting tenet that should be kept in mind: Whatever you pay attention to grows. This means that, even if you are using positive parenting skills, all that “feelings” talk in the moment can grow the very problem you are trying to stop.

It goes like this: Gertrude stomps in and rudely requests dinner. You are annoyed/frustrated/angry/livid and say: “When you speak to me like that, I feel . . .” Gertrude’s brain lights up with the attention and, because she is hangry, she doesn’t care about your feelings, which leads her to double-down on the rudeness. This isn’t conscious; she is at the beginning of a meltdown. You feel more challenged, which leads to more talking, which leads to more rudeness, which leads to: “Get out of the kitchen or you will never eat again, Gertrude!”

Here are some other ideas that don’t require talking: Zoom out to see how often this is happening and when. If it’s always associated with hunger, she may need more or different types of food (more protein, good carbs) right after school. It’s okay if this ruins a bit of dinner; regulating her blood sugar is more important.

Speaking of school, let’s also remember that transitioning to school after the pandemic shutdown can be stressful. Your daughter is doing her best to acclimate to a new environment, so when she comes home, her cup is empty, and her dysregulation comes out as frustration.

Rather than taking these outbursts personally, try to expect them and love her through them. Wordlessly give her a banana and a hug. See what happens if you don’t go back and forth with her. And although you mention speaking to her after the incident, she is too young to take those lessons and reliably apply them to her day-to-day life.

Essentially, she doesn’t want to scream at you, and I’m sure she feels badly about it when it’s over. But she can’t hold on to her intentions when she’s exhausted and hungry, so poof — out comes the sass.

While we’re on the topic of using fewer words, I’m wondering whether “the look” gets you anywhere. In parenting cultures, parents and caregivers use their eyes, eyebrows and facial expressions to communicate a clear message: “Watch it!” This look is meant to warn children that they have crossed a line, and they should either stop what they’re doing or proceed with caution. When done correctly and not overused, this look can be a powerful yellow light for many children. Children with executive functioning challenges may barge right through the look (their brains are moving too fast), and many children see that look as an invitation to fight, so just see what happens when you stay silent and use your face as a warning.

Either way, I know that a demanding almost-6-year-old can spark frustration, but try to find the middle between total compassion (and doing nothing) and total discipline. And try to see what happens as you speak to her less and connect with her more through this trying transition. Good luck.

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