Our son is so prickly! Is this our fault?

Dear Jenny

We’re struggling with our explosive 10-year-old son. He is mostly lovely – kind, funny, active – but for no apparent reason he can be prickly and uncooperative. He just seems to wake up that way some days! He can flare up over the smallest things, like being asked to do his teeth or finish getting ready to go out, do his normal chores or homework. We’ve tried being understanding, growling, and giving consequences – but nothing has been successful so far. Can you help?

Some of Jenny’s tips

It’s a puzzling thing – how one child can be so lovely sometimes and at other times, so awful! I think a lot of parents feel as though it’s somehow their fault. It is true that some kids are just trickier than others to figure out and raise. However, we can have a positive impact. Here are some ideas.

The most important thing, which will not be a surprise to you, is that our ability to remain calm and steady is incredibly effective. Our kids really do take their emotional cues from us. This can take some skill and determination – I describe it as ‘finding another gear’. The truth is, it’s a skill we can practise and learn. If our end goal is to ensure our children have this important life skill, then we have to be able to model it. Our parental authority sits on this. By that I mean – if we can keep our dignity most of the time, our kids will be more inclined to take notice of our requests and instruction.

Clear instructions are important too. Are we asking politely, clearly and briefly? Are we speaking to our children in the way we would like to be spoken to by our friends and colleagues? These two ideas can easily get lost when we’re busy and juggling multiple roles and schedules. However, they are good ideas to keep an eye on, especially if things get wobbly in our families.

There is also the need to have a family framework for managing emotions. When our kids are really upset about something it can be wise to pause and firstly acknowledge their feelings –“I can see you’re really disappointed. That makes sense.” Make it okay for them to have the feeling – don’t try to talk them out of it or glide over it in the hope that you can get them moving on quickly! That can be counter-productive.

Sometimes kids just need to know that we know how they are feeling and then they’re able to move on by themselves. Other times, they may need to offload the story and the emotion. As they start to feel a little calmer, we can coach them to brainstorm ideas about what will make them feel better, how to sort the situation out or let it go. I ask kids to give me ‘three good ideas’. Creating options give us power to change our situations. (It is good for adults too!). Once they’ve come up with three ideas, ask them to pick the option they feel most comfortable to try and ask them to report back – to tell you how they get on. This gives you the opportunity to acknowledge their ability and check if they need to try something different next time.

There won’t always be time to go through this process, but give it a go when you can because it gives kids ‘real world’ skills that they’ll be able to take into all their relationships through life. If there really isn’t time because you’ve all got to get out the door to school, then make a date to talk about it after school, but at least do the acknowledging the feeling bit. Let me know how you get on with these ideas.

The outcome

We’ve really been trying to keep calmer when dealing with our son. We liked your idea about finding another gear. I think a lot of times we’ve felt like we’re all out of control. But it does make a noticeable difference when we can stay calm. Your emotions framework was useful, particularly the part about acknowledging our son’s feelings. Most of the time we can go from there to getting back on track. We find we only have to do the long version occasionally. So we’re happy to report that we’ve seen much more of the lovely side of our son and less of the prickly bit! Many thanks, Jenny.