There is a steady stream of stories about irresponsible, entitled, spoiled children and young adults in the news and schools. How can we keep our kids from falling into those habits? When kids do stupid or unkind things, I like to respond with a two-pronged approach.
The first prong is to 'get' and address what's going on. When a child has suddenly started being aggressive, we can wonder, reflect, and talk with trusted friends about what's going on until we understand the child's perspective. Is there a new sibling? Is she having a hard time at school? Has something changed in family routines? What is up in her world?
When a teen has suddenly gotten belligerent and won't talk about it, we can try to read their body language, pay attention to what they're doing and not doing, and be curious about why. Is he under some unusual stress? Are relationships stable? Could he be worried about something related to school or other performance?
This part of our approach is all about curiosity and compassion. By understanding the child, we may be able to offer support that gets at the root of the problem rather than fighting the symptoms. It's wise to start here because when children feel connected and loved, they are generally pretty easy to get along with. When they're difficult, they are probably under some sort of pressure or in pain.
The second prong is to hold reasonable limits. When a child has suddenly gotten aggressive, we intervene rather than make excuses or plead with her to behave differently. We hold her firmly but lovingly when she tries to kick or hit. We step between her and another child before she can hurt them. We move her out of an aggressive situation quickly and supportively.
When a teen gets unusually belligerent, we stay steady and clear. If he is angry because we said 'no' to using the car, we can respond with caring but not capitulation. Let's not change reasonable limits even if our son is angry (although we may want to strengthen the connection in other ways). If he has slipped into a pattern of speaking to us unkindly, we can respond honestly, sharing very simply how we feel. "That hurts, I love you and that means it hurts when you say harsh things to me." This honest talk is likely to affect teens much more than a lecture would.
The wisest parental response offers compassion and empathy for the child and gives clear and supportive limits.
As a mom (to 2 teenage sons), wife, and person in the world, I have been on a long imperfect journey. I have made many mistakes, but with mindfulness, emotional reflection, and lots of support I have learned enormously from those mistakes.