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Skip the Sass

Not thrilled by your mouthy preschooler or your back-talking tween? You’re not alone. Correcting perceived attitude problems is a top parenting concern, and there’s often no easy fix. In fact, this stubbornly persistent behavior may be biologically driven. Though you may not turn a grouchy grumbler into Positive Polly overnight, you can help your child learn to be more respectful and polite in short order. Here’s how to ditch your kid’s problem ‘tude and enjoy a happier family, starting now.

Early Learning Years: Two to Six - Attitude adjustment

Though you’re probably peeved when your two-year-old starts spouting sass, know that it’s normal for toddlers to act out sometimes. Toddlers and preschoolers are still learning emotional and behavioral regulation - the ability to recognize and rein in unwanted attitudes and actions - and won’t get it right all the time, says child and adult psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, M.D., Ed.D., child and adult psychiatrist, New York Times best-selling author and expert for the online learning resource, “So much of a child’s attitude depends on inborn temperament, so don’t be surprised if one preschooler can use words to work out conflicts, and another can’t.”

Adults can help tots learn to manage their ‘tudes by modeling the building blocks of emotional regulation, including using words to name emotions; for example, “I feel frustrated right now,” taking a break to ‘cool off’ when needed and using respectful tones to speak with others - unruly toddlers included.

Elementary Years: Seven to 12 - ‘Tude tweaks

School-age children can certainly dish out attitude, but there’s a reason for this stormy season. With new social pressures, growing academic responsibilities and the advent of puberty, the tween years create the perfect storm of strong emotions and angry outbursts. Help correct a negative attitude with positive parenting tactics, advises licensed psychotherapist Sara B. Thatcher, LCSW.

Avoid talking about what you don’t want with phrases like, “Stop being rude” and “Don’t swear.” Instead, talk about what you would like to see. Saying, “Please use kind words” in the same tone of voice you want your child to use is more effective than repeatedly shouting, “Stop!” notes Thatcher. Spark more positive behavior with a ‘kindness challenge’: Each time kids show kindness or respect, toss a quarter (or another sum) into a kindness jar. When the jar is full, the family can use the funds for something fun.

Teen Years: 13 to 18 - Emotional overdrive

Sweet one day, feisty the next - sounds like a typical teen. So how can parents tell normal teenage attitude from potential problem behavior, depression or a mood disorder? First, know that your moody teen is likely just reacting to the pressures and hormones of the teen years; most kids don’t have a mood disorder. “Concerning ‘red flags’ are excessive irritability, frequent bouts of tearfulness, explosive outbursts, significant changes in appetite resulting in weight loss or weight gain, sleep problems and self-harming behaviors,” says Thatcher.

If your child’s poor attitude is causing problems at home or school, reach out to a counselor, family therapist or your child’s paediatrician. “I tell parents, never worry alone. If you’re worried about your teen, talk to him or her about your concerns,” says Hallowell. Building a strong bond with your teen will help see you both through the highs and lows that come with high school.

Malia is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.

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