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The Obnoxious Child: When an "Audience" Makes Behavior Worse

by James Lehman, MSW
The Obnoxious Child: When an Audience Makes Behavior Worse

Does your child’s behavior become more obnoxious, demanding and “smart-alecky” when he has an audience? Some kids just seem to “step up the show” as soon as their friends come over. You’ll see this happening with both kids who are occasionally out of line, and those who are obnoxious chronically.


Chronically obnoxious kids often have a hidden agenda. What that means is that you will see them putting other people down in order to feel better about themselves. Think of it this way: rude comments or jokes at the expense of someone else are like little power thrusts. It makes some kids feel powerful when they’ve made somebody else look stupid or incompetent—especially if that person is an adult.

Sometimes kids behave this way because they have problems dealing with others – perhaps they have a hard time with authority, for example, or some type of social anxiety. I’ve seen many kids who use this type of behavior because they’re feeling nervous or insecure. But remember, feeling anxious doesn’t give anyone the right to be mouthy, disrespectful or make fun of others in a mean way.

Whether your child is demanding and obnoxious occasionally or chronically, you have to let them know what they’re doing is not okay—your role is to teach, coach and guide them by setting limits and challenging their inappropriate behavior.

6 Ways to Turn Around Your Child’s Obnoxious Behavior


Prepare Your Child: If your child is regularly demanding and rude in front of others, I recommend that you have a talk with him about how he is expected to behave before you enter any social setting.


For example, let’s say your child wants to have some friends over to play video games. An hour or so before the other kids arrive, say to your child, “Look, if you get a little anxious or nervous today, I don’t want you to speak to me in a rude or sarcastic way. I want you to talk to me nicely; in fact, I’m not going to respond if you’re bossy or demanding. I’m going to pull you away from your friends and talk to you about it. If you do it a second time, I’ll correct you in front of them. And if the behavior continues, I will send you to your room—or send them home.”


Your goal here is to try to set the stage for good behavior. Let your child know ahead of time what will happen if he behaves inappropriately. This is like reading him the rules of the game before you start playing—now, you’re both aware of what will happen if he crosses the line.



Call Your Child Aside: If your child starts being disrespectful in front of his guests, call him over and say, “I don’t like how you’re behaving right now. I want you to talk to me nicely,” and then leave the room.



Correct Your Child Publicly: This is the last chance before your child is sent to his room for a time-out or his guests are sent home altogether. You can simply say, “Jacob, don’t talk to me that way just because Connor and Thomas are here. Remember we talked about that.” Again, walk away.



Stop the Show: If your child still isn’t able to control himself, you need to stop the show. Tell him that he needs to go to his room and that you’ll be up in a moment. Ask his friends to go sit in the living room. You’ll find that they will usually respond to your authority, no matter what your child is doing.


When you go up to your child’s room, challenge him on his behavior by saying: “What did you see down there that made you think it was okay to be demanding and make fun of me? What was going on?” Your child is probably going to give you some excuses—and try to blame you. At this point, you can say, “Blaming me isn’t the solution. The solution is to calm down, slow down, and talk to me respectfully. I want you to take five minutes in your room and come up with how you are going to talk to me for the rest of the time your friends are here. I’ll be right back.”


Putting a time of five minutes on it gives your child some time to calm down before you return. Because again, you’re just trying to help him get focused on how he should behave. When you go back to his room, simply have him tell you how he’s going to talk to you. Then say, “Fine, let’s go out and give it a try.”


That way, the pressure is on him. It’s his responsibility to behave himself in front of his friends. Of course, if you have younger children, you have to monitor and watch them more, but as they get older, remind them that their guests are their responsibility—which means they have to behave in such a way that accommodates your authority.



Discuss It Later: If your child has been rude, after his friends have gone, sit down and have a conversation with him about his behavior. You can say something like, “I noticed when your friends were here today you were acting bossy. Maybe that was because you were nervous or excited about having them here, but I want that behavior to stop.” At the end of the conversation, look for a response from your child. Follow up with, “I want you to talk to me more respectfully and be less bossy. Can you do that?” If your child agrees say, “Alright, so what am I asking you to do?” And let him repeat it back to you. He might say something like, “Be nice; don’t be bossy.” It’s okay if he doesn’t say it in your own words, as long as he understands what you expect from him.



Give Him a Consequence: If your child’s obnoxious behavior continues, don’t allow him to have any friends over for a week. Tell him, “If you talk respectfully to me for a week, you can have guests again.” So that way, he’s got to earn the privilege.


He should also tell you what he’s going to do differently next time. This forces your child to use his brain to come up with solutions. He might say something like, “I’ll say please, I’ll say thank you, I’ll say excuse me. I’ll use a nice tone.” Even if the answers he gives you are obvious, don’t worry about it—the important thing is that your child is coming up with better ways to respond to you in front of guests, and that’s what you want.


In fact, you’d be surprised how much impact this exercise can have on your child’s thought processes. It changes everything, because it gives your child options for the next time he’s about to say something obnoxious or make fun of you in front of others.

What If My Child is Obnoxious and Bossy with His Friends?
Parents often ask me about kids who are obnoxious and bossy with their friends. Personally, I think adults should stay out of interactions between kids, unless the rules are being violated—for example, if there is name-calling going on, or if someone is being physical or threatening. Part of a child’s development is to let them work out social interactions for themselves, and it’s important that we let them do so—no matter how much we want to jump in and referee at times.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t help your child afterward, when his friends have gone. As a parent, when you see your child being bossy or domineering with other kids, it’s time to take up the coaching role. The next time things are calm, say, “I’d like to tell you some things I saw the other day. I saw you picking on Connor a lot and making jokes about him. And even though he was laughing, I could see by the look on his face that he was hurt. You might not have noticed because you were goofing around, but I did. I also thought you were being a little bossy with your friends—you didn’t let them pick any of the video games you played.”

Your child is probably going to get defensive, but just say, “Listen, I’m not attacking you. I’m just telling you what I saw.” At this time, you can offer your help, as well—just put your hand out to him in a neutral way: “If you want to talk about better ways to get along with other kids, I’m here for you. We could try to come up with some different ideas together.” If your child doesn’t want to discuss it, you can say, “That’s OK. But I do want to tell you that it’s hard to keep friends when you act that way.”

Your goal here is to try to offer some guidance. Your child might not take you up on your suggestion right away, but he might eventually—especially if other children stop playing with him as a natural consequence of his behavior.

Obnoxious Behavior in Adolescents
I’d like to say a few words about teens and pre-teens here. It’s important for parents to understand that adolescents are embarrassed by their parents most of the time. In fact, most teenagers think their parents are embarrassing and corny, and they tend to want to compensate for that in front of their friends. Sometimes they act out their embarrassment by being bossy and putting you down. So I think you need to pre-warn them before any social gathering. If they are disrespectful or make you the butt of their jokes in front of others, correct them by saying. “Don’t put me down just because Eva’s here, Caitlin.” Then turn around and walk away. Don’t get into a big discussion or argument—instead, leave her holding the bag.

I think again, preparation is a big part of how we should do things. So prepare your teen or pre-teen ahead of time so that she knows how you’re going to react if she’s obnoxious or makes fun of you in a rude way. You can say, “I know your friends from the softball team are coming over today. I just want you to remember that when you’re in front of them, you need to respect me. That means you need to introduce me politely and not put me down. I know kids are embarrassed by their parents, but you’re going to have to deal with that and be respectful anyway.” Remember, our goal as parents is to help our kids solve the problem of how to behave— and that means in any situation. Look at it this way: if your child is obnoxious in front of others, it just means they haven’t solved the problem of how to behave appropriately in that particular social situation. Your job as a parent is to guide them and set limits so they learn how to treat you and others respectfully.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


What do you do for a six year old that will not even let you get a word in and interupts as you are trying to tell them that you don't like the way they talk to you. For example my daughter started to copy us and makes sarcastic faces and moves her mouth like she's dogging us out.

Comment By : Lost for words

I just want tosay that these weekly articles are incredibly helpful. I have learned so much. I wish so badly that I had come across Total Transformation and Empowering Parents years ago -- my life would be a lot different. But as a physician I can use some of these hints with parents and have recommended the course to several people.

Comment By : bdavis

EXCELLENT article with lots of practical tips. This is a common problem for many parents, and I think that those who choose to follow this advice will go a long way towards teaching their children to treat everyone with respect. Unfortunately, I think this is a lesson that many parents choose to ignore, with the result that so many children are just not fun to be around. THANK YOU for giving such practical advice!!!

Comment By : kla1017

* Dear Lost for Words: Sarcastic faces and mimicking tones are obnoxious behaviors that challenge our patience and parenting skills. I’m glad you asked your question because I’m sure many other parents share your experience. As James Lehman suggests in this article, prepare your child by having a conversation about this behavior before it occurs again. Even if you try to discuss your concerns with your daughter but you’re interrupted and hear what you just said sarcastically repeated back to you, you can still turn this into an important teaching moment. Do your best to not over-react to her, maybe pausing a minute and taking a deep breath before you speak. What will be important is your tone of voice compared to her tone of voice. You are going to role modeling how to manage your tone and what you say even when you’re frustrated. Speak ‘matter-of-factly’ and say, “Until we get through this conversation, you have no privileges. Let me know when you’re ready to talk.” It’s best to stop talking now and wait. When she is ready to talk, tell her, “I want to help you find ways to stop interrupting and mocking people when they’re talking.” She might reply, “Well it’s so frustrating!” Tell her that everyone gets frustrated but we all have to learn ways to manage our strong feelings. Now ask her to problem solve by telling you what else she can do when she feels frustrated instead of becoming sarcastic. Give her a little time to come up with an idea. If she cannot, you might tell her what you do to calm yourself and you might let her know that taking deeper, slower breaths is something she can try. You want her to know ahead of time what to do instead the next time she feels like being fresh. A review of Lesson 6, the Alternative Response Process in the Total Transformation will help prepare you for these problem solving conversations. You’re also welcome to call the Support Line. These specialists are trained to help you with program tips and ideas. Thanks for your question and keep in touch with us. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

What do you do when your teenager acts silly, speaks silly and ends up being disrespectful in front of parents only? When friends are over he becomes a good kid, and doesn't want to be embarrassed.

Comment By : needs more help

Very good advice in this article.

Comment By : demelza

Every time I read one of these articles I think that somehow Dr. Lehman has had my step-son in his office and then immediately wrote an article about it after he left. These articles are so helpful because almost without fail I can use the technique immediately and see results. My step son behaves better for me than he does for anyone else he's involved with and I attribute it completely to these articles and programs.

Comment By : jennilionheart

My son is both obnoxious and asks for items or activities constantly (6 years old).He asks for things and then has tantrums, tells me i'm mean,becomes defiant or says nasty words.Half of the time he's asking for things or activities that he knows he is just not old enough to have/do.He also bugs and bugs and interrupts with all the asking and begging he does.please help!

Comment By : TIRED

Dear needs more help: If your son is abusive or disrespectful to you in front of other parents you can actually take very similar steps outlined in the article. You'd want to discuss with your son what you expect and what you want him to work on before you're in that situation. Be very clear on how you will respond to the situation if he starts to act out and is rude to you. The first time, you can pull him aside and remind him of the expectation and that you want to be spoken to nicely. The second time you can correct him in front of your company and if it continues you may need to apologize briefly to your guests and ask them to leave (leave if you’re the company) or give him the direction to take go to his room and take a break. There should be a consequence for your son if it reaches that point but most importantly you'd want your son to come up with a plan on how he can deal with the situation better next time. You may also want to consider holding him responsible for making it up to you that your plans were altered by doing something helpful that would make your life easier. Since I wasn’t exactly clear on what the situation involved, I’d like to include some articles that deal with abusive behavior and disrespectful behavior. That way you have some steps you can take if your son is talking to you inappropriately in private with no audience whatsoever (other parents or friends).

Comment By : ridgeback522

Another practical article....Thanks

Comment By : ridgeback

Here is a big one: How (if at all) can you tell your next door neighbour that their child is naughty and deliberately does what you tell him not to do when they think he is reasonably well behaved?

Comment By : Just trying to do the right thing

what about a 13 year old boy that is rude to all adults in a public setting. makes rude toasts at dinner parties, constantly challenges what people say... even if it isn't a direction. makes bunny ears on everyone in pictures, can't get along with most boys his age, constantly makes rude and obnoxious comments in regards to anything that is going on... very publicly. his mother just says "well, atleast he has balls" infront of him, and then encourages me to speak up to him about how he annoys me when he's not there to hear. I don't feel my words will make an impact if his own mother moderator supports much of the behavior. o have a two year old he tells that her mommy is mean and bad... he laughs. tells her she should run away from me screaming... and she has started doing so. the behavior is way out of character for a typical boy his age and needs to be corrected before he is marked for the rest of his life. I feel his parents do him no favors by ignoring the behavior or putting it off on others. PLEASE HELP! -concerned out of love

Comment By : hottberry

* Dear ‘hottberry’: These can be delicate social situations when the child who is misbehaving is not your own. When this teen is rude to you, you certainly can say something to him. It’s important to speak up for yourself and your family when circumstances allow, but keep your remarks very polite and brief because there is a limit to your authority here. Your goal is to make a statement that says you object to this behavior, but not to force the behavior to change. When speaking to this teen, use a neutral tone in your voice and have a calm look on your face. Use James Lehman’s saying, “It’s not okay to speak to me that way.” When he tells your two year old to misbehave, feel free to say, “Please don’t say that to her.” Despite your remarks, this teen’s behavior may continue. If you find his behavior is too inappropriate for your child or yourself to be around, you may need to consider how much time you can spend socializing with this family. Thanks for your question. We hope these ideas will be helpful.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Thank you for this article. Our 6 year old daughter has been bcoming incresingly more obnoxious with her behavior over the months (She does NOT behave this way in school, however). When we ask her to do something she gives us noises, heavy sighs, rolls of the eyes, falling on the floor in annoyance. And MOST annoyingly, she repeats what we say in an annoying baby tone. Even if no one is talking to her or about her, she copies what others say in the same way. WHY!?!? We have spoken to her calmly, warned her (and put her in time outs when she doesn't follow the warning). It doesn't stop and I'm not sure what more we can do. I am two steps from losing my mind, i think my husband is one step ahead of me on that. We have 13 and 9 year old daughters as well and they NEVER acted this way, nor would they ever try to! Please help!

Comment By : Being Copied

* To ‘Being Copied’: Being mocked by your child is incredibly infuriating for many parents. If your daughter was able to get a big emotional reaction out of you even once by mocking you, that could explain why she continues to do it. Practicing a very calm, businesslike response is going to be very important. When she mimics you, set a clear verbal limit. James recommends saying, “We’re not joking right now. This is serious.” You can also say something like, “We don’t tease like that in this house; that’s not okay,” and walk away. Always walk away after setting the limit and seek your own space so you can calm down. Later you can give a very short consequence that will motivate her to practice not mocking you. For example: no TV until she goes 15 minutes without mocking. Be really clear about what mocking means, talk about a real life example. This is going to be more effective than a time-out, as she has to practice not mocking to get the privilege back. And keep in mind, TV is just an example. As for the eye-rolling, noises, heavy sighs and falling on the floor? It’s going to be most effective for you to ignore these behaviors altogether. Don’t pay any attention to them or walk away when she does it. The key is to not give these behaviors any attention. I know this is hard. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

From our experience, children who "act out" in some way are crying out for attention. Some children may act in an obnoxious way, others throw tantrums, and some constantly cry. We find that there is usually "something" bothering these children. Look a little deeper than the situation alone. Look for patterns. When does the behavior occur? Does it occur more often with one parent over another? A certain family member? Sibling? Once you notice patterns through observation, jot them down. It may take some time to come up with a solution because every child is different, but they are all alike in that they want to feel secure, protected and loved. Though you may feel giving into the behavior shows children you love them, it actually may have the opposite effect. Children often know when they are doing something wrong, will test you, and want to see you (as the parent) will do the right thing by them. Children secretly want you to discipline them and put an end to their bad behavior. Just be careful how you go about it. Don't spite children. Don't go to their level! Stay in control as the protective, loving parent they need. If the child is having tantrums, DO NOT give in. Be strong. Look straight ahead with no expression. Pick the child up and sit them in their room with the door ajar. Say in a firm, but not mean tone, "You are to sit here until you decide to stop." Make sure you are not sitting them in a corner or somewhere they will feel trapped. This will be hard because the child will probably be screaming and crying. But, follow through. If the child gets up, firmly direct him or her back to their room and repeat the quote above. Such a tactic will teach your child control and will make them feel loved and protected by you. Disciplining children can be very challenging, but, without it, a spoiled, out of control child can negatively affect children throughout their lives. Take the reigns. You can do it parents!

Comment By : ATutorOnWheels

Good ideas, but I've tried them all and things just keep getting worse with my 10 year old stepson. I know he has abandonment issues because his biological father is always on the run from who-knows-what and only visits him a few times a year, and it doesn't help that his mother and I had twins who demand much of our time but his behavior predates the twins birth by 2 years. This is no excuse for his behavior, which includes non-stop throwing baby toys at us (sometimes when we're in bed trying to sleep!), kicking toys across the room, mocking us, and my personal favorite: if we ask him to not do something (such as banging loudly on a storage bin when we're trying to get the babies to sleep) he will do it a dozen more times while staring at us. I'm sure I've left some things out. Any attempt to exert discipline result in him screaming and crying, or falling to the ground in a theatrical fashion to make it look as if he was assaulted to anyone who is looking on (typically his mother). We always start by asking nicely, which leads to blatant disobedience, which ultimately leads to yelling because he will not stop... He will not go to his room, and if we escort him he will continue to immediately come right back out. If we dare take him in public he will scowl the whole time and throw tear-filled tantrums... Take restaurants for example: he will order something he has had before and knows that he hates, but insists upon it despite our reminders that he hated the meal last time... Then he proceeds to go on and on about how bad the food is and constantly pester everyone to hurry up so he can leave. I'm at my wits end and very much considering pushing for military school... He may end up hating us for it but at least he won't end up in a juvenile detention center. Oh, and we've tried counseling/therapy... According to the "experts" there is nothing wrong with the status quo. And walking away just hands him a victory when we have the luxury of walking away... Usually he will just follow us, and we can't leave the twins unattended because they are 1 year old and always finding the shortcomings of our childproofing efforts. I don't trust him to watch them for more than a few seconds anyway because he tends to get rough with them or take their toys away to make them cry. Hmm... Yes. I think I'm done venting now.

Comment By : just sad

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