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Child Caring

R-e-s-p-e-c-t. That's what this 9 year old wants.

Hi Barbara,

We have 2 children and our oldest has always had a difficult personality. I could write you many pages about him, but I should try to keep this short. I guess the biggest issue is when he does not get his way, he most often gets angry, moody, and very stubborn. Usually what sets him off is transitions...when it is time to go to school, time to go to swim lessons, time to go to our friend's wedding, time to leave for a family bike ride, time to go to a festival for the afternoon. He also gets argumentative some days when it is time to do homework. Because of the intense drama he puts on each time I only sign him up for one activity at a time. I make sure he has plenty of down time. He is 9 and is in 4th grade.

He will be extremely angry, asking over and over WHY we have to go. Saying "You didn't ask ME if I wanted to go", scowling, and general extreme moodiness. We have learned to be very black and white with him and not give in. We are tired of his mood ruining everyone's day. We do give him to the count of 3 and then he gets a consequence, but often it just makes him more angry/upset/moody.

His dad and I are very happily married. We both spend a lot of quality time with our son and as a family. We are getting worn down, honestly. This happens multiple times daily. I feel like I'm constantly threatening consequences, giving consequences, or reminding my son to speak in a polite tone of voice.

He was a very hard baby, a volatile toddler, a stubborn preschooler, and now a moody, argumentative grade schooler. Please give us advice. We do not want to raise a jerk!

Thanks,
From: Carrie, no town given

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Dear Carrie,

Some of what you see is likely part of your son's temperament, but a lot of what you're getting right now is likely part of him being a preteen. He's only 9, you protest! Guess what? This stage of development tends to happen younger than we expect it. In fact, puberty happens younger than it did for previous generations, boys as well as girls, according to researchers.

Preschoolers push the limits as a way to test, "Will my parents still love me if I do this? What about if I do this?" Preteens do the same thing, only the question that fuels their behavior goes more like this: "My parents don't think I can do this! What if they're right?!" We give preschoolers choices so that they can make decisions and feel in control, even though we only offer choices we can live with. What we need to do with preteens isn't all that different.

Here's what might help:

Translate his words. He dumps on your cooking? "You don't even know how to cook!" Speaks rudely and with a nasty tone? "You can't make me!" Translate it to this: "I'm a person. I have some rights. Give me some respect." Do this in your head, not out loud!!

Hopefully that translation will push you to parent a little differently.
Giving him consequences, counting to three -- these are responses that make him feel like you think he's still a little kid. You need to new responses. Start by having an honest conversation: "I know you're not a little kid anymore. Counting to three is for kids. What could I say when I need to remind you to do something?" Maybe you'll agree to a code word, a hand signal. Ask him, "OK, let's try that and see what we think in a week." If it's not working, that's the time to say so: "You know what? I feel like I tried but it didn't seem to work. What's a next step?" Just the act of involving him in the process may work wonders.

Then......

Don't wait until the morning of a family bike ride to tell him about it. Do it the day before and give him the choice of opting in or out: "We hope you'll come with us, but if you want to make other plans, that's OK." Guess what? He'll probably choose to come. He doesn't really want to be left out of the family. What he wants is to feel that you respected him enough to ask him. What he wants to say -- if only he could verbalize it -- is something like this: "I'm not just a little kid anymore who does what you always want. I'm my own person!"

Don't misread me. I'm not suggesting that your 9-year-old has earned the respect of an equal. My point is that he's trying to differentiate himself from the child he was and the teenager he's becoming. When he wants to do something more grown-up, he's testing himself -- he's afraid and excited; what if I can't do this?! What he needs from you is to not treat him like a little kid but also not to just sign off. What if it really is dangerous? Doesn't mom/dad care anymore?
Your job is to negotiate from the "I" point of view -- "Here's what I need to feel comfortable about this." -- rather than from the pointy finger "you" -- "You're too young/too blahblah." That only puts him on the defensive and forces him to become more entrenched. A response that worked well for me as a parent went something like this: "This is a big step. We can try it and see how it goes."

Lastly, try not to take any of this personally. It isn't about you. It's about him trying to find ways to understand and affirm himself.
Oh -- and about him becoming a jerk? This is a stage, it'll pass, but, yeah, it's a long one.