Help! My Kid Is a Jerk!

Medically Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on July 23, 2014
4 min read

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

Sometimes they don't listen to you. They won't take no for an answer. They are mean to their 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:

Why they do it: Disappointment, anger, or frustration

What you can do: Point out the difference between what your child feels and how they act. Feelings are always OK. Tell your child you understand their feelings, but help them 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 they never send. After a few minutes, they can come back and try again to talk calmly.

Why they do it: They are testing their limits. They probably want 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.

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, they should learn how to deal with their 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.

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. They may act badly because they are lonely or are struggling with schoolwork. Or they 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 they are 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 they probably aren't -- they may still have a problem. Keep an eye out if they seem sad or quiet or have 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."