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.
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.