Help, growling isn’t working

Dear Jenny Hale

We are a family with four kids under eight and life is very much on the busy side. My partner and I run a tight ship to make sure we keep our heads above water. Our second eldest child, Alexandra, is perhaps the one giving us the most grief at the moment. She is five and half and constantly seems to push our buttons and do things that annoy us in quite a deliberate way. She antagonises her siblings without being provoked and it seems as though she really craves the negative attention. It’s as though she has a default switch that goes straight to whining mode when she wants something. No matter how many times we point out that her constant grizzling isn’t helping – she just keeps doing it.

Alexandra cries at the drop of a hat over things like dropping a pencil or bumping herself lightly. We are afraid she is not developing coping strategies for everyday ups and downs. Both my partner and I feel like we are on edge, especially when we are out in public and can hear ourselves growling at her a lot – which I have to say doesn’t make a scrap of difference to her behaviour. She can be a great kid, but the most upsetting thing about her is that she just doesn’t seem to be happy.

Jenny’s tips

One of the reasons children use negative behaviour is because they find the sulking, whining and niggly behaviour potentially useful. It creates drama, angst, tension, and often even gets parents offside with each other. The feedback they get from the behaviour becomes a form of ‘food’ for a child. Even though poor quality nutrition, children are attracted to it as it offers a small amount of satisfaction.

Growling and responding in frustration often confirms what a child may be feeling deep inside. A grizzly, moany child is usually feeling unhappy about themselves. The cross words they hear reinforce what they believe deep down – they are a nuisance, a bother and on the naughty side. When you use words that show Alexandra you believe in her, rather than find her a pain, she can more easily change her mindset about herself. “Alexandra, we are so glad that you are our five-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Let’s try that again because you have lots of kind words inside you to use today.”

Alexandra’s unpleasant behaviour also offers her a role to play in the family. When she hears her parents talk about her – “Oh there she goes again, how many times does it take to get through to that child?” – she realises she can occupy the ‘high maintenance’ or the ‘difficult child’ role within the family. This is usually done subconsciously, but every child is seeking a position of significance in the family so they look for a role vacancy.

Some parents believe that unless they are growling and correcting, they are not being a good parent. It can be a mark of diligence and care. However, once you start growling and correcting, it is hard to stop – even when it’s obvious the behaviour isn’t altering. A change of direction is needed.

Quietly speak to Alexandra in a way that is meant just for her ears. This saves her dignity and prevents the ‘stage show’ that is created by a loud growl where everyone looks to see what the child will do and what the parent will do when the child refuses to comply. Lower your voice and gently let her know what you expect. No one else needs to know. Sometimes it is kinder to take your child gently aside so they are protected from the audience.

Children find it easier to cooperate when they are told what to do, rather than what not to do. Telling them to stop something means that they also have to do two things – stop something and start something else. It is simpler to let them know just what to do! Instead of, “For goodness sake, Alex, stop your grizzling. You are not going to get a thing by asking like that!” Try, “Alex, I’d be happy to make you another sandwich if you are still hungry. Come and ask me with your lovely polite words.”

The outcome

We didn’t realise we had got so stuck in the growling groove! When you mentioned it seemed the thing that ‘good parents’ do – we both knew that we had quietly accepted that role as it seemed the ‘right’ thing to do.

The hardest part was changing the response we had to her grizzling. It was second nature to tell her off and for a while I couldn’t think of what else to say. I took your advice and wrote out a few positive lines to use and taped them inside the pantry door. Funnily enough Alexandra spotted me referring to them and it was like she was chuffed I was trying something different! One big thing we noticed was that other people, including siblings and grandparents, stopped getting on board the negative train with their own jibes. At least three friends mentioned how much they were enjoying her company.

My partner invented a second chance card idea. Whenever she grizzled, he gave her a card. It gave her another chance to ask properly, but she had to wait one minute before she could try again.

The neat thing is that this has been good for all of us. We are all speaking more nicely to one another, which is as an unexpected bonus. Alexandra was a catalyst for change in our family and we all needed it. She is more buoyant and nice to be around and the fact that others are getting to see this nice side of her is the best we could have hoped for. Thank you.

Family Coach Jenny Hale talks about why growling children doesn’t work