Help! My Kid Is a Jerk!

From the WebMD Archives

Your kid is great -- good sport, lots of good deeds -- but he has obnoxious moments. And those moments threaten your sanity.

Sometimes he doesn't listen to you. He won't take no for an answer. He's mean to his sister. You start to ask yourself, "Is my kid a jerk?"

Some ages are naturally harder on kids -- and parents. But how can you tell what's normal? What can you do about it? And when should you get help?

"All of those behaviors are typically one of two things: a cry for help or attention," says Christine Carter, PhD, author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. "I see these things as flags, maybe not red flags, but certainly yellow or orange."

The answer to many of these problems may surprise you.

"The best thing that parents can do is listen," says Kristin Kenefick, associate professor of clinical psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. "Stop talking and really listen to your kid."

Here are some common problems and some tips for dealing with them:

They dish out sassy or back talk, yell, or have angry outbursts.

Why they do it: Disappointment, anger, or frustration

What you can do: Point out the difference between what your child feels and how she acts. Feelings are always OK. Tell your child you understand her feelings, but help her take the heat out of the moment.

"The most appropriate response [when you feel] angry is to do something to calm yourself down so you can be effective," Carter says. Suggest your kid take 10 deep breaths or write a letter that she never sends. After a few minutes, she can come back and try again to talk calmly.

They disobey or ignore you.

Why they do it: She's testing her limits. She probably wants more freedom but might feel too controlled. "Sometimes ... parents don't adjust their expectations for the kid, so they may still be treating the kid like he or she is 8 or 9," when she's older, Kenefick says. Kids, especially teenagers, need a bit of freedom. "When parents don't give kids this opportunity, that's when they see a lot of conflict."

What you can do: Let them make choices that are right for their age. "Their lives are so structured and they're just trying to carve out a place for themselves," Carter says. But they also need limits. "If they don't feel like they have boundaries, they will start disobeying you a lot to test you," she says. So it's important to follow through when they break the rules -- each and every time.

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They beg or won't take no for an answer.

Why they do it: They're upset you didn't say yes.

What you can do: Negotiation between parents and kids is normal. But it's different from whining and begging. If you say "no" to your kid's request, he should learn how to deal with his disappointment. Carter suggests that parents be firm when something isn't open to discussion. How do you do that? Tell your child not to ask again. "You have the ability to say 'no' and not negotiate," Carter says.

They're rude or mean to other people.

Why they do it: They need help with something.

What you can do: A kid who is rude or mean to others might be angry about something else. Kids are famous for shifting their feelings, Carter says. He may act badly because he's lonely or is struggling with schoolwork. Or he could be picking up on stress at home. Do some digging. "I think the best thing parents can do is check with their kids and say, 'Is something bothering you?'" Kenefick says. Follow up with your child's teacher as well.

When should you get help?

"To some extent, we do expect at least some of these behaviors" in all of our kids, Kenefick says. "The question is, do the behaviors interfere with the kid's functioning?" If he's getting in trouble, getting bad grades, having trouble with friends, or acting out at home, get help. Talk to a therapist, parent coach, or school counselor.

"I think you want to seek outside help if you are not able to make any progress on your own," Carter says. "We're trying to prevent [the kid's] behaviors from becoming habits."

Even if your kid isn't a jerk -- and he probably isn't -- he may still have a problem. Keep an eye out if he seems sad or quiet or has trouble sleeping.

"It's easier to pay attention to the kid who is acting out. Parents do sometimes overlook the kids who are quiet," Kenefick says. "They could be in as much distress."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on July 23, 2014

Sources

SOURCES:

Christine Carter, PhD, author, Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.

Kristin Kenefick, PsyD, associate professor of clinical psychology, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

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