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What to do when your child starts mouthing off

©Veer.com, used by permission

You've seen this: other people's kids are acting up, being "fresh" or "mouthy." Their parents are pulled into a vortex of embarrassment and helplessness. Meanwhile you — safely perched on the sidelines — are watching an entirely different channel of reality TV.

What you see is a child's clear desire to assert his or her independence, albeit with the grace of a, well, OK, with no grace at all. But that parent? That parent is caught in what I like to call the "gotcha" moment. That's when a child's apparent disrespect, back-talking or entitlement has pushed their parent's buttons, and pushed them good.

In "gotcha" mode, it is very hard for parents to show grace. How can they when a pint-sized intruder has invaded and dishonored their sense of all that is right and good? It's not our shining moment either.

Why do kids get mouthy and what can we do about it (that we won't feel bad about later)? The first thing is to enter a mindset shift. I recently heard children described as diplomats from a foreign land that don't yet understand the ways of our people. How apt. 

Typically, the mouthiness that parents object to is kids saying what they really feel — the value of which I think we can all agree on — with the unfortunate hitch of having only novice skills in the fine art of delivery. Your child may be feeling disappointment or frustration and not know how to show it in a way that enlists your support.

"We never do anything fun," for example, might translate to something far less bratty, like, "I'd really like to go to the movies, even though no one else in the family likes it as much as I do, can I have a say this time?"

Your intention in responding to your child's less-than-ideal expressions should be to focus on the big picture and not on the particular words your child has chosen. Certainly you still need to make the expectations for respectful behavior clear, but rather than immediately chase down every sassy comment with a consequence, what if you instead gave your child a second chance to fix their misstep?

When parents under-react strategically, they shape a new behavior that summons their child's best self. Here are some handy lines to give your child the opportunity to learn to be the best version of themself and to speak as seasoned diplomats.

Can you try that one again, please?

You are giving your child the chance to catch the error they made by themself and rephrase their point. Then, no harm, no foul. Instead of overreacting to insensitivity with your own, you get to see that your child really does get it.

What do you think I'm going to say here?

Give them the chance to guess all by themselves what they need to fix. Everyone will be better off because of it.

Is this really what you want to be saying/doing right now?

This phrase overlooks the badness of what just happened, and aside from not being insulting, you're giving your child the power to fix what they said.

What you really wanted to say, but couldn't...

This is my favorite strategy: to speak for my children (or husband, or cats) restating what they are saying including the better intention which was missing in the first draft. So when I'm bringing in the groceries and my daughter greets me with — "What? You didn't get chips?!?" — I say, "Mom, thank you so much for going grocery shopping on your day off, you are the best mom ever, but I'm just wondering if you happened to, with all the other things on your mind, get the chips I wanted."

We both get what we need — I hear what I want, and my daughter gets a script and a second chance. We share an understanding (and usually a smile) and we move on.

Of course the success of this strategy, and really all of these, is that you have to be sincere, and have no hard feelings. A slight glint of the eye helps.

Essentially you are sashaying past the unfortunate choice of words rather than pulling over, parking your car and shining your headlights on it.

One of the best ways to teach your child about flexibility is by demonstrating your own. This is what the fine art of diplomacy really sounds like. Because in the end, if you sound like a brat while correcting your child for sounding like a brat, well, Houston, we've got problems.

Language is power. So what do you do with mouthy children? Love them. And seize the opportunity to teach them how to use their power to get what they really want — to be understood. 

©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2015. Previously published on Newsworks.org.

For more ideas like these, please check out my books:  Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want and Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Revised and Updated Version:  Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries, and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life--from Toddlers to Teens

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