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Negative Children: How to Deal with a Complaining Child or Teen

by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Negative Children: How to Deal with a Complaining Child or Teen

Let’s face it, “No” gets a reaction. Kids thrive on the connection they have with you, and if a child is always negative, they will usually get a reaction from their parents. As odd as it sounds, sometimes the negativity spewing from your child’s lips is not meant to sound as bad as it does. She may simply want contact with you, albeit negative contact. Some kids’ versions of, “Hi, how are you this morning?” come out as, “These eggs are disgusting!” While this is the way your child might want to connect with you, it doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it or listen to it endlessly.

“Sometimes your child’s negativity and goading behavior can feel like a magnet pulling you in. I think the best thing to do is be very conscious of what’s happening, and then stay out of that orbit. The main thing is, don’t give it legs.”

When your child is a constant complainer, it can be emotionally exhausting. Your negative child may also be loving, funny, and sweet, but unfortunately her negative attitude stands out because it’s such an energy drainer. What’s worse, your mind starts “futurizing” and jumps to every worst case scenario.

Related: How to put real limits on your child’s behavior.

So where does all the complaining come from? If your child is in her teen years, adolescence may be the culprit. When she was young she might have been enthusiastic about everything. You’d hear her say, “Mom look at this! Wow, it’s so cool. I love it!” Then adolescence arrives and it becomes way too uncool to be enthusiastic, especially with your parents. Sharing her inner feelings means opening herself up to you—and that is probably exactly the opposite of what she wants to do at this point in her life. Pushing you out is the name of the game. And let's not forget that you and your family are the safe haven where all stresses of childhood can land. She may not tell you about her awful day at school, but instead complain that the food you cooked tastes awful. Yes, this is unpleasant, but remember, don't take it personally—this could be a coping skill your child is employing

As strange as it sounds, negativity and complaining are actually ways to manage anxiety. When your child complains, she feels better because she’s expressing himself and venting her worries and fears. If you don’t react to it from your own anxiety, your child will move on.

Related: Are you an anxious parent?

After you determine what’s triggering your child’s negativity, consider why you get so stirred up by it. Understanding why it upsets you so much is really half the battle; knowing why it pushes your buttons will help you find more calm, effective ways of dealing with it. Do you tend to be negative and critical yourself? Our kids’ behavior can often put a mirror in front of us, and it's not always what we want to see. Do you feel responsible as a parent to fix your child, shape her up and make her happy—and turn her into a “Sally Sunshine?” Do you futurize and get anxious, and ask yourself if this is the life your child is destined to lead?

Oppositional Kids: Using Negativity to Stir the Pot

"This sucks! I hate this family.”

Sound familiar? Kids who are oppositional or defiant often use negativity to get everyone around them worked up, including you. Sometimes they respond automatically without thinking—they’re not necessarily trying to make everyone upset—but other times, they do it with the intention to make everybody else feel as miserable as they do. And you and your child’s siblings probably bear the brunt of it, because home is that safe place where he can let out the absolute worst part of himself. If your child spews a lot of negativity at home, the trick for you is not to get pulled into it, because that’s what will give him the feeling that he's in control—he’s got you and you’re paying attention to him. You’re hooked.

Work hard not to indulge that part of your child. Recognize when your child is trying to push your buttons and try not to get pulled in. The temptation in the moment is to feed the mood by saying something like, “What’s wrong with you? You’re ruining the movie for everyone!” Instead, you can put limits on this negative behavior by saying, "Not now, please. We’re trying to watch the movie.” Or "It sounds like you don’t like it. Why don’t you go to your room and do something else?” If your child continues to be defiant, you’ll need to try some enforceable consequences. (Please read Parenting ODD Children and Teens: How to Make Consequences Work by Kim Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner to find out how to do this effectively.) Define your boundaries and make clear what you will and won’t do without being critical and giving your child the message, "You should be different, what's wrong with you?"

Related: Hands-on help for parents of ODD kids.

Easy? Not at all. I know this is hard—sometimes your child’s negativity and goading behavior can feel like a magnet pulling you in. I think the best thing to do is be very conscious of what’s happening, and then stay out of that orbit. The main thing is, don’t give it legs.

Here are 7 things you can do as a parent when your child is being negative and it’s pushing all of your buttons.

1. Don’t try to turn your child into something she’s not. As a parent, you might feel you're responsible for how your child feels and behaves. If so, the choices she makes will feel very personal to you. You’ll find yourself trying to turn her into a positive person, a “Negative Nancy” into the proverbial “Sally Sunshine.” The result? She’ll work all the harder to resist you. This will cause you to push harder, creating more and more reactivity and negativity between the two of you. Remember, you’re not responsible for the choices your child makes about her attitudes or behaviors. Instead, you’re responsible for how you respond to these attitudes and behaviors.

2. Try to be nonjudgmental. As hard as it is, try not to be judgmental, critical, or defensive. So if your child says, “This food is gross,” don't react by saying, “Why are you always so negative about everything? The least you could do is say thank you!” Instead, say something like, “Hmmm, I'm sorry you don't like it,” or “Too bad you find it so unappealing,” or simply, “Oh.” Nothing more needs to be said.

Related: Why it’s better to take charge rather than try to take control as a parent.

3. Don’t personalize it. Try as hard as you can not to personalize your child’s negative attitude and constant complaining. Have a slogan in your head that helps you ignore some of his negative remarks. Try repeating the following to yourself: “It’s nothing personal and nothing to worry about. These are just feelings.”

4. Be direct. If your child launches into a venting session when you’re stressed out or in the middle of something, be clear and direct. You can say,Sorry, but I’m not up for listening to this right now. Why don’t you save it for later, when I can focus on what you’re telling me?” That way, if your child really needs a sounding board and isn’t simply complaining for the sake of complaining, you’ll be able to give him your full attention and listen to what's on his mind. (And maybe by that time, he’ll have worked through it on his own. In this way, your child will learn to rely on himself to calm his anxieties.)

5. Reflect but don’t react. If your child always has something negative to say, you can go with it without agreeing with him. If he says "It would have been a good day if I’d gotten a home run during recess,” you can say, "Yeah, really just to have that one extra thing, that would have made it better for you, huh?" Instead of trying to negate his negativity, listen to it and let it go. When your child is critical of something and then you’re critical of him being critical, it just adds to the cycle. Often we don't hear ourselves complaining about our kids and we just pile it on. So try to be nonjudgmental about it.

6. Put a time limit on complaints. If your child is really a chronic complainer, you might consider putting a time limit on him. When your child launches into a complaining session, listen to what his beef is and then let him let him know he only has a few more minutes. You can say, “Okay Jackson, two more minutes to talk about how you hate math, and then we’re done with this subject today. I can’t hear anymore.” You can also establish a complaint time as James Lehman advises in The Total Transformation Program. Set aside a time each day, like after dinner, when your child has 10 minutes to complain about everything that’s bothering him. Limit it to that time of day and that amount of time. If he forgets and starts being critical about something, just remind him that he can tell you all about it at complaint time that night. You can also give him a journal in which he can write everything down. Another idea is to give your child five “complaint tickets” per day that he can use at any time. Each one is good for one complaint, but after the five are used up, no more. (This works well for younger kids.)

Related: How to give consequences that work.

7. Give honest feedback. Your ultimate goal is to let your child be who he is, but also to let him know that his attitude does have an impact. Giving him honest feedback is one of the best ways to set your own boundaries while respecting his. When he’s going on and on about something or someone, you can say, for example, “When I'm hearing too much of your criticisms and complaints, I find myself tuning it out." You could also try saying something like, "Hey, I think I need to hear a few more positives right now because I'm getting zapped."

Generally when you give authentic feedback, you're just letting your child know that what he’s doing is not working for you right now. Again, simply complaining about his negativity is not necessarily going to be helpful. Instead, you need to be honest about it and let your child know what you're feeling about the impact of moods, attitudes and words. That's about you expressing you—not you criticizing him.

Related: How to avoid getting entangled in your child’s emotions—and parent more objectively and effectively.

A final piece of advice: When dealing with your negative child, be counter-intuitive. Again, while the goal of helping your child be a more positive person is a good one, trying to make him be one will backfire. Instead, do what is counter-intuitive: accept his negative feelings. His feelings are separate from you, so allow them without “futurizing” and personalizing and getting entangled. Don't let your own anxiety about your child interfere. Rather, listen without criticism. Stand next to him, not joined to him. Only then will he stop being compelled to use his energy to fight you or defend himself from your criticism. With your acceptance, he’ll be free to begin thinking about how he wants to change and grow.


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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

READER'S COMMENTS

This was very helpful, especially about why does it bother you. I worry about his negativity affecting how he'll be able to make friends, and try to redirect him. So maybe I need to step back here. I will try what she says. :)

Comment By : Panan

I did not find this article very to be very genuine because in #2, when a teen makes a negative comment, ask questions. Why is a great question to ask. Maybe the teen actually has a point. I once forgot salt in my recipe, who knew! Maybe after a genuine Why question, you find out that an unrelated thing happened to them. If after you ask why they are so negative and it is just negative to be negative, ask them what is really going on with them, tell them you know it is not about what why said negatively, but it is about something causing a dark cloud to follow them everywhere, ask what is it? If it is negativity against people, ask why they don't like the person. I really did not like this article because often teen negativity is because they are constantly being blown off by parents and adults and no one bothers to ask why and care what they think even if it is a faulty perception. Conversation can actually help and is often what they crave under neath the negativity...

Comment By : kdarlingart

I love this approach it works, I find I did not believe it at first, but I use this approach on all my day care chidren but with my own I was drawn into the fight NO MORE, all rules are good for everyone. We are all children and need to be heard.

Comment By : smile55

I can definitely see myself (parent) in this article. It offers some helpful techniques to implement and I look forward to trying them - today!

Comment By : TeenMom

Thank you so much for this article. It has so much make it more fun to be a parent in this kind of situation.

Comment By : Ada

This is great advice, but what if his complaints are all about you. Do we follow the same guidelines.

Comment By : momof13yroldboy

Very eye-opening!

Comment By : scareyon

Since I started reading these articles my life has changed a whole lot. Now I have alot more understanding towards my 11 year old son. The communication is a whole lot better. Thanks very, very much.

Comment By : sherry

* To 'momof13yroldboy': You ask a great question here. It is difficult not to personalize negativity and complaints when the complaints are all about you. As Debbie points out in the article, the negativity may not necessarily be about you, even though it is directed at you. If your son is just being negative overall in his attitude, then we recommend not taking that personally or taking it as an invitation to an argument. If his negativity is rising beyond general complaining and going to the point where it verbal abuse, then we recommend addressing that by setting a limit with him and not engaging with him until he calms down. For example, if he is being abusive, you can say, “It’s not OK to talk to me like that” and then you can turn around and walk away from him until he calms down. I am including a link to an article series about verbal abuse that you might find helpful: Kids Who are Verbally Abusive, Part 1: The Creation of a Defiant Child & When Kids Get Ugly: How to Stop Threats and Verbal Abuse (Part 2). Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

I really like this article, pointers for situations are always helpful. I need all the knowledge I can get. Thank You

Comment By : Mom of <3

I LOVE these articles. Every time I read one, I learn something new, or something old just "clicks". Thank you. Keep 'em coming. I have so much to learn.

Comment By : 5boyzclub

* Dear kdarlingart: Yes, asking questions, reflecting your children's negative feelings, listening to them, and taking them seriously is so important. Giving them your time and genuine curiosity will help them become aware of what else might be lurking under their complaints and negativity. And as you said, maybe their dark cloud is nothing more than their deep yearning to be connected with you - heard and understood - to know that you care what they think. By trying to stamp out their negative feelings we inadvertently can contribute to increasing them. When we as parents are not so anxious and therefore invested in getting our kids to be "positive" or "okay" - when we can get our anxiety down when they are negative - then we can "think" more clearly about our own questions and curiosity.We can then be separate enough to have good conversations, ask important questions( and not try to get them to answer the way we would like them to so we can feel calmer).Taking an interest, reflecting rather than resisting their feelings (even if you disagree with their feelings ), and having good conversations is what this article is promoting.Thanks for your comments.

Comment By : Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

I love this article and find all the suggestions helpful as I do all the aricles on this site! Would you also condone enforcing a simple consequence if the child continues to be verbally abusive? Or would you just recommend walking away and letting your absence be the consequence? I feel like a combination of walking away and enforcing a consequence if necessary sends a clear message that there are family boundaries of respect that have to be adhered to. Walking away doesn't feel like the right strategy when things escalate into verbally abusive behavior.

Comment By : Uvita

* To Uvita: You ask a great question here. To be clear, complaints and negative statements alone are not abusive, even though they might feel very hurtful. If your child’s behavior does cross into verbal abuse—swearing at you, name-calling, screaming, or personal put-downs—then you absolutely would want to give a simple consequence later that helps your child to practice the behavior you want to see. An example would be no computer until he/she goes one hour without being verbally abusive. You do still want to walk away in the moment, as we find that giving consequences in the moment tends to have the unwanted effect of escalating the situation. Good luck with this and take care.

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

My son is 21 ,he is negative about most things which I can ignore or just ignore but he is not moving forward.he is not in school works part time pizza place which is great,lives with grandparents but they are getting frustrated with his #$$# smoking. He was a great hockey player but never went any where with it. I think he is anxious he did see a psychologist and is on antidepressants. I keep telling him things will get better actual everything I say makes him upset. He is a good person,animals and kids migrate to him.I would like to be a support and not an annoyance,any advice.Article is great

Comment By : Charmaine

* Hi Charmaine. It’s very challenging when you’re only trying to help your child and they seem to get upset about everything you say or do. While you’re goal is to support and help, it’s possible that your son perceives your help as a hindrance to his independence. You can certainly continue to offer support and talk to your son about some changes he might make in his behavior to be more successful, and yet it’s important to realize that he might not want your help for whatever reason. At that point, the best you can do is take care of yourself. I’m including an article about problem solving to give you some strategies that might work for him. You might also start off a conversation by talking about something that he has recently done well at or improved on before you shift to what he might change to do better. This is called strategic recognition and affection and it can be really helpful in opening up kids’ ears to things they might not want to hear otherwise. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this. Take care. The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems"

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

* To 'blakey": Thank you for sharing your story with us. You ask a tough question. It would be difficult to know whether your postpartum depression has had any effective on your daughter or exactly why she behaves the way she does. Ultimately, the why doesn't matter as much as the behavior itself. Counseling may be a good option for your daughter, especially if anxiety seems to be playing a role in her behavior. We would also suggest you establish a culture of accountability within your home. By this we mean establishing house rules and expectations for behavior and holding your daughter accountable for either meeting these or not, as Megan Devine outlines in the article How to Create a Culture of Accountability in Your Home. It's probably also going to be beneficial to start having her complete some tasks independently. You may want to start small, maybe with having her pick out her own clothes, and then work up from there. This will work towards helping your daughter develop skills to deal with problems effectively, and, as a result, help her develop positive self-esteem. James Lehman discusses how a parent can effectively help their child develop self-esteem in his article Low Self-esteem in Kids Part II: 3 Ways to Help Your Child Now. We would suggest you continue ignoring some of the negative behaviors when possible. This can be especially effective with attention seeking behaviors that are not abusive. We wish you and your family the best as you continue to work through this challenging time. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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