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. They 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.
When your child is a constant complainer, it can be emotionally exhausting. Your child may be loving, funny, and sweet, but the negative attitude stands out because it’s such an energy drainer. What’s worse, your mind starts futurizing, and you start thinking that their negative attitude will be a problem for your child down the road. Futurizing is the tendency to expect the worst outcome for your child, and it’s one of the most potentially destructive things that parents can do.
So, where does all this complaining come from? If your child is in their teen years, adolescence may be the culprit.
When your kids were young, they might have been enthusiastic about everything. You’d hear them say, “Mom, look at this! Wow, it’s so cool. I love it!”
But, once adolescence arrives, enthusiasm becomes uncool, especially around parents. Sharing their inner feelings means opening themselves up to you—and that is probably the opposite of what they want to do at this point in their life. Pushing you out is the name of the game.
And let’s not forget that home is the safe haven where all stresses of childhood can land. They may not tell you about their awful day at school, but they will 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 ways your child manages their anxiety. When your child complains, they feel better because they’re expressing themselves and venting their worries and fears. If you don’t react to it from your own anxiety, your child will eventually move on.
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 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 them up, and make them happy? Do you futurize and get anxious and ask yourself if this is the life your child is destined to lead?
Understand that kids who exhibit oppositional or defiant behavior often use negativity to get everyone around them worked up, including you. Sometimes they respond automatically without thinking. In these cases, they’re not necessarily trying to make everyone upset.
But other times, they use negativity intending 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 they can let out the absolute worst part of themselves.
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 them the feeling that they’re in control, the feeling that they’ve got you, and you’re paying attention to them. 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 to them:
“Not now, please. We’re trying to watch the movie.”
Or, you can say:
“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 to your child what you will and won’t do when they act out. Try to establish these boundaries without being critical: you don’t want to give your child the message that there is something wrong with them.
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 to be very conscious of what’s happening and stay out of that orbit. The main thing is, don’t give it legs.
Here are seven things to keep in mind when your child is being negative and is pushing all of your buttons.
As a parent, you might feel you’re responsible for how your child feels and behaves. If so, the choices they make will feel very personal to you. You’ll find yourself trying to turn your negative child into a positive person, a “Negative Nancy” into the proverbial “Sally Sunshine.”
The result? They’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 their attitudes or behaviors. Instead, you’re responsible for how you respond to these attitudes and behaviors.
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 this to them:
“Hmmm, I’m sorry you don’t like it,”
“Too bad you find it so unappealing.”
Or you can simply say, “Oh.” Nothing more needs to be said.
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 their negative remarks. Try repeating the following to yourself:
“It’s nothing personal and nothing to worry about. These are just feelings.”
If your child launches into a venting session when you’re stressed out or in the middle of something, be clear and direct that you are not ready to hear their complaints. You can say:
“Sorry, but I’m not up for listening to this right now. Let’s schedule a time later this evening 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 them your full attention and listen to what’s on their mind (and maybe by that time, they’ll have worked through it on their own. In this way, your child will learn to rely on themselves to calm their anxieties).
If your child is a chronic complainer, you might consider putting a time limit on them. When your child launches into a complaining session, listen to what their beef is and then let them know they only have a few more minutes. You can say to them:
“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 them. Limit complaints to that time of day and that amount of time.
If they forget and start being critical about something, remind them that they can tell you all about it at complaint time that night. You can also give them a journal in which they can write everything down.
Another idea is to give your child five “complaint tickets” per day that they 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.)
If your child always has something negative to say, you can go with it without agreeing with them. If they say, “It would have been a good day if I’d gotten a home run during recess,” you can say to them:
“Yeah, really just to have that one extra thing, that would have made the day better for you?”
Instead of trying to negate their negativity, listen to it and let it go.
When your child is critical of something, and then you’re critical of them 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.
Your ultimate goal is to let your child be who they are, but you should also let them know that their attitude does have an impact. Giving them honest feedback is one of the best ways to set your own boundaries while respecting theirs.
When they’re going on and on about something or someone, you can say, for example:
“When I hear 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 they’re doing is not working for you right now.
Again, simply complaining about their 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 them.
While helping your child be more positive is a good goal, trying to make them positive will backfire. Instead, do what is counter-intuitive: accept their negative feelings.
Your child’s feelings are separate from you, so allow them to have those feelings without futurizing and personalizing and getting entangled with your child. Don’t let your own anxiety about your child interfere with your child. Listen without criticism. Stand next to your child, not joined to them. Only then will they stop being compelled to use their energy to fight you or defend themselves from your criticism.
With your acceptance, your child will be free to begin thinking about how they want to change and grow.
Acting Out in Public: Is Your Child’s Behavior Holding You Hostage?
4 Things Not to Do When Your Child has a Tantrum
Empowering Parents Podcast: Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher
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.
You must log in to leave a comment. Don't have an account? Create one for free!
I just stumbled across this, thank you. My daughter has just turned 4 and has been whinging and moaning for the past 3 and a half years. I just got home in tears because I am so exhausted by it all. I too feel like I can’t be happy because she destroys my mood. I am a single parent too. I can’t go anywhere or do anything without the relentless moaning.
It’s nice to see all these comments and know I am not alone. Thank you Parents x
As validating as it is to read that my family is not alone dealing with a constitutionally negative child, what I'd like to know is whether the professionals and researchers have any idea WHY certain children behave this way. The minute my kid is unable to control/chose his setting, the complaining, needling, demeaning, meltdowns and even fighting are right around the corner. These are all such antisocial behaviors it seems as though something in neural development must be different in these kids than their more flexible, optimistic, and kinder peers. All of the recommended approaches are so parents/family can adapt to or cordon off the negative child's behavior, but I really do get the impression that the behavior is somewhat hardwired. So do parents/families (and teachers and peers) just keep these kids at arms-length indefinitely (and make them feel isolated and angrier as a result)? Or is there any actual approach we can use to CHANGE the default negativity?
To offer what I feel is a telling analogy: if I were living with someone who was constantly complaining about/to me, pessimistic about everything, stubborn, and occasionally threw objects at me or tried to physically hurt me, that would be called domestic abuse. My family and friends would tell me to get out for my own well being and there would be all kinds of counseling and understanding available to help me heal from being abused by a domestic partner. But when the abuser is your own child, you're supposed to just work around it and hope it gets better?
Children whose default reaction is negativity, anger and use of force are at increased risk of all kinds of problems as adults (unstable employment, substance abuse, run-ins with law enforcement, failed relationships). I don't just want to work around the negativity, whether it's rooted in ODD or anxiety, I want to FIX it to protect my family now and my child long-term.
That's a great question. James Lehman, co-creator of the Total Transformation program, believed that negative acting out and defiant behavior is due to poor problem solving skills. We have an excellent article that explains this philosophy and also gives ideas for how to address it: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-surprising-reason-for-bad-child-behavior-i-cant-solve-problems/.
We appreciate you being part of the Empowering Parents community. Be sure to check back and let us know how things are going.
I found this article after my husband had a very difficult day with our 13-year-old and his two younger sisters. Everything that comes out of Andrew’s mouth is negative, and he struggles to follow directions and control his impulses (he also has ADHD). His behavior seems so selfish and disrespectful, and he also pushes everyone’s buttons, including his sisters. I tend to parent more like the article suggests but my husband really struggles with Andrew’s behaviors. It’s really hard! Even when I try to ignore the behavior it’s not fun to be around. My husband makes comments like, “ I can’t stand being around him,” and “no one will want to give kids like him extra attention because he’s so ungrateful.” The article really explains a lot of our daily challenges, thanks.
A few questions, when behavior is like this, do we continue to provide positive experiences like getting to go snowboarding and having time with friends and access to his nice phone, etc.? We do use the phone as a bargaining tool (example, you lost your phone today because you missed the bus). I feel like our boy is just this way, and as the article says, he’s not doing it to hurt others but subconsciously he tries to get attention (even negative) or is expressing anxieties from other areas of his life.
Do we focus on his strengths? He has a good friend group and is a leader with his friends (I don’t understand how sometimes), He gets A’s and B’s in school and is intelligent. But.... so many struggles at home!
This article seems to be pretty helpful; I needed to take some (lots of) notes!
With respect, I do believe though, that a piece is missing though-- putting their troubles back where they belong (most often, they are not our troubles). I have a hard time with this sometimes, but am trying to better recognize this when 3 girls come at me complaining. I listen, do some of the above (if all goes well yet admittedly struggle), but more importantly, then I have to ask, "How are You going to handle that?" "What can You do to help or change that situation?" "Do you think there are things that can be done to make it better?"
"Perhaps you can make your lunch this week by yourself, Sunday, we can see how it went, and then discuss making some possible changes." End of discussion. Provided an alternative solution (if ideas are lacking), gave deadline/ set boundaries, and in there turned it back around with a positive spin, as some real solutions could come out of it. This one step could bring us closer to birthing a positive "Problem-Solver!" Yet not usually what I think of in the moment. ;)
Complaining (usually, statements aren't even solid truth) does drive me crazy!!! But ultimately, like the article says, I am Not responsible for their attitude or behavior choices but I Am responsible for how I respond to those attitudes and behaviors.
Lord, help us to teach them to be problem-solvers!
I have a 13 year old son who can be such a mopey Eeyore (as in Winnie the Pooh). We don't have a lot of money, so often times we do the free stuff, walking, bike rides, hikes. Once in a while when the budget allows for it, I'll take them to lunch and bowling and it never seems to fail that he ruins the fun. Everything is so stressful. If he's not doing well at it, he just goes negative. I can't deal with it anymore. It just depletes me of ANY happiness. I don't even want to go anywhere with him. I feel as if I have to stipulate all sorts of rules before we head out. Addressing the basics, this is a fun thing, there is no competition, lets be supportive of one another (and little brother) instead of competative.
He seems to think the ENTIRE world is watching him, and only him, under a microscope no less. He is hyper vigilant of this to the point that he's embarrassed about virtually everything he does. It's very weird to me. I am at the point that I just shut down when he starts his downer attitude. I go silent. I can't turn it around. So I just go dead in the moment. It's not a planned response, but more a depressive response. He just takes all the fun out of everything.
My son said out loud " I never get any money, why does she get money" a little girl was getting money for her birthday...HER BIRTHDAY! lol I couldn't believe it and my Dad was there and he almost lost his mind. The child was getting money pinned on her shirt and my son was jealous. I knew then, that this is out of control because now he is saying things in public with no regard.
you are not alone
I really appreciated this article. My son is 6-years-old and I completely 'get' the futurising' thing. I spend a lot of my time worrying about him being an unhappy or gloomy person and how that is going to affect his life going forwards. My daughter is a sunny 8-year-old that is very easy going and happy to adapt to changing situations. My son has social shyness, at least initially - it takes him a while to warm up in social settings. He complains and 'whines' a lot and this can sometimes develop into an all-out tantrum. I think a lot of my anxiety about my son's behaviour stems from my concerns about what his life is going to be like as someone that is so inflexible and negative.
I also very unfortunately find myself falling into the trap of getting really frustrated and saying things like: "What have you got to complain about? You have parents that love you and give you and work very hard to be good parents. You have a beautiful home, lots of toys, good healthy food to eat, a mommy that always helps with your homework, a nice school, a great bedroom - what could possibly be the matter?" I think of little kids who live in our town in extreme poverty and go to bed hungry or some children who get beaten or abused or neglected, and there's my son with parents who are patient, never raise their hands to him, who spend a lot of time questioning if they are doing the right thing and being self aware, and almost daily he talks about how we didn't do x, y or z, or how this or that is our fault. One day he came out of school and wasn't looking where he was going and walked into the lock mechanism in the door frame and immediately blamed me for not preventing this from happening, even though it was impossible for me to have done so.
When I ask him to the table to dinner, he starts to screw up his face and complain: "Why have you made this? I didn't want this! I didn't ask for this!" Or, "Why do I have to eat dinner now!?" And literally every night something he may have enjoyed a week or so previously, and which I make specially to please him, gets added to a list of things he now doesn't like or want to eat, and he starts to retch if I ask him to try it. When he found out this week that there is going to be a funfair in our town this weekend he admonished my husband and I for booking a holiday to Greece because the 'stupid holiday' was going to mean that he missed the funfair.
I don't really know what to do, which is why I googled this subject and happened upon this article. I appreciate there are changes that need to be made, and they have to start with my husband and I. I love my son dearly. He can, as the article suggests, be a very loving and affectionate little boy. He is also very bright. But at the moment the negativity is soul destroying and extremely draining. I find myself questioning what I did differently with him (as opposed to my daughter) and how I am at fault for this. I worry about potential mental health issues and then sometimes I think maybe he is just overindulged? Or perhaps that's my parents talking. I am going to try what I have read here, and any other pointers would be most appreciated. Thanks.
"we're not responsible for our child's happiness" BOOM! Thank you for saying that! I needed to see it in black and white! Our granddaughter (we are now raising) had a tumultuous early life (she is adopted)...and I find myself trying to "make up" for the tough times she had with previous adults in her life. But, I know I'm responsible for providing a safe environment, meeting her basic needs and making memories. Thank you for posting.
I like the article and advice. Seems like most of are going through the same things.
What the article doesnt do, is help give advice on what to if none of this works. We have been through counseling and implemented some of these ideas. They seem to work for 5 min, then he is on to fighting with a sibling or complaining about something else. You can't just ignore him picking on someone else and starting a fight else where. It is nice to say "write it down" or we will talk about this later. How do you do this when the list can be pages long throughout the day.
We are so drained and tired of managing the one child. There has to be more one can do than just ignore him and the attitude especially when he is harming or causing issues with others.
We have a very unhappy, angry, and very critical 13 yr old daughter. She has always been one of those kids who is always hot or cold. Never warm. Screaming or laughing. nothing in between. Since becoming a teen she is in overdrive on everything. I homeschool our three kids.More The other two (one 15 and one 8) are fairly easy going. They have their ups and downs. The 13 yr old is constantly bossing them around. And she can and does get physical with them and us. This weekend was a doozy. I took over making a cake for a party that she wanted to decorate. (it was 20 minutes until the party for my son) . She blew up running away with the top of the cake. Yes I should have let her do the cake. But what will happen if in the outside world something doesn't go her way. Is she going to explode and lash out at everyone around? what do we do? The fight has been going on for three days. I have tried to just acknowlege her disappointment and just ignore the venomus words she is spewing out. But after hours of it I am just worn out. She follows me from room to room. I tried to leave the house to step away, she calls it running away from my problems. I am tired of walking on eggshells to try and keep her happy enough to not destroy the rest of the family with her words. Any ideas? We are making an appointment with our pastor. And possibly get a recommendation for a family councelor.
It can be so challenging when one
child seems to cause so much turmoil within a family. Often times, the
unfortunate outcome of this dilemma is the rest of the family walking on
eggshells so as not to set her off. This response certainly is understandable;
after all, no one wants to have to deal with an angry tirade every day.
Unfortunately, this response rarely helps to solve the issue long term. As you
point out in your comment, other people in the real world aren’t going to
tiptoe around your daughter, so, she is going to have to learn the skills to
deal with anger and frustration effectively and appropriately. One way you can
help her do this is by having problem solving conversations about the ways she
is choosing to respond. Sara Bean gives some great tips for how to have this
type of conversation in her article The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”. You want to pick a relatively calm time to have this
conversation as most people aren’t able to have a rational conversation when
they are escalated. It may also be helpful to start implementinghttp://www.empoweringparents.com/authoritative-parenting-consequences.php?&key=Consequences-And-Rewards for these outbursts.
For example, your daughter might lose access to one of her privileges until she
can go for a certain amount of time without an outburst. You want to start out
small, maybe she loses her computer time for only a few hours to start. It
sounds like you believe it would have been better to just let her finish the
cake instead of getting into a power struggle over it in that moment. While it can be easy to recognize this in
hindsight, I’m sure in the moment you were more focused on simply getting the
cake done in time for the party. There is something to be said, though, for
picking your battles, as trying to address every instance of poor behavior
or acting out is going to be overwhelming for everyone involved. I hope this
helps to clarify some steps you can take to address the current situation as
well as future challenges. The best of luck to you and your family moving
forward. Take care.