I can still remember the first time that my sweet-faced, doting, little princess ripped my heart out. She was two.
My wife was held up at work, but that never caused too much tension. Olivia and I always had a ball together. We’d laugh and play right up until bedtime and, on the occasions that mom wasn’t home by her nightly routine, things went off without a hitch. Usually.
On this particular evening, she was moody. Nothing happened to make her that way. She just was inexplicably pissed off. There were scrunched lips, annoyed glares, and whiny responses. As she simmered with anger in the bubblebath, her curly hair drooping further than her sad little face, she whined, “Mommy! Mommy. Where’s mommy?”
I had a pretty stellar record when it came to calming her down, so I had total faith in myself as I carefully explained, “Sweetie, mommy will be home soon. Don’t worry. Daddy’s here.”
To this, she looked me square in the eye, and with all the force of a drill instructor on crack, screamed out:
Yeah. So I didn’t burst into tears…on the outside. But inside, I was crumbling. I wish I could say that I couldn’t shake the memory of it for weeks, but, truth be told, she’s rounding nine years old and I still have it firmly planted in my brain.
Every parent has experienced the sting of a mean child. It’s a rite of passage and a sign that kids are getting in touch with their emotions. They’re learning to express themselves even when they don’t know if there’s something to express. Most times, hunger or boredom can manifest itself into pure nastiness.
Around the start of second grade, Olivia went through a phase where she was grumpy every day when we picked her up from school. It didn’t matter who picked her up and it didn’t seem to stem from something that happened. She was just mad for the sake of being mad every weekday around 3.
I’d ask about her day and she’d literally make an annoyed, “Hrmph!” sound. The duration of the walk would be spent asking what was wrong. The question had a double meaning. There was the obvious, what wrong thing happened to cause this behavior? The other meaning was the more troubling – what the hell is wrong with my kid?
After a few weeks of constant angry pickups, I started to realize that maybe there was a reason for all of this. I was a kid once and I know the struggle that comes with trying to navigate your feelings. We all get moody, even as adults, and it’s tough for a child to deal with that. So, the next time I showed up for school dismissal to find a miserable little lady, I had a discussion prepared and laid it all on the line.
Listen, you don’t even know why you’re mad, do you?
Sometimes people get into bad moods. You’re leaving all your friends at the end of the day and that stinks. You’re probably just moody, but you can’t take that out on people. You’re getting to be a big girl. It’s alright if you don’t know how to express your feelings. It’s not alright to be mean to people.
Good. Next time you do it, you’re going right to your room. Understand?
Yes. I understand.
As you can see, she totally understood what I was saying. All was good. We continued our journey down the street.
Before we completed that three minute walk home, I asked her what she had for homework and she screamed, “I ALREADY TOLD YOU!” I sent her to her room when we walked into the house. Sure, she understood what was happening with her attitude. That doesn’t mean that she was ready to control it just yet.
Despite understanding why she was ping-ponging her emotions, I also understood the need to squash it as early as I could. In life, no one gives a damn if you’re in a bad mood. If you tell your boss you hate his stupid shiny head, he’s not going to say, “Oh, McGinty, that’s fine. You’re probably just having a rough day, buddy.”
No, McGinty. He doesn’t care. You’re fired. You blew it.
She needed to learn the way the world works. You’re free to be as mean and rude as you want. You’re not free from the consequences. You don’t get to be Scrooge without dealing with ghosts.
Over time, those miserable pickups died out and her happy/angry ratio dropped back to around 90/10. She began to understand how to react to certain situations and the confusing surliness toned down. Now, when she’s mean, she’s mean on purpose, but even that’s about testing boundaries.
That angry-for-no-reason period doesn’t last forever, but a lot of that has to do with how we, as the adults, handle the situation. Like any phase, it can turn into a permanent personality trait if left unchecked. We’re the ones who have to check it. Understanding is great, but condoning isn’t.
The good news is that even if your son told grandma that her butt is too big or your daughter called your elderly neighbor “Goonbuggy” to his face, it doesn’t mean that they’re destined for a life of angry exchanges. It means that they’re kids. They’re growing, learning, and testing what they can get away with. It’s our jobs as parents to recognize that fact and understand where they’re coming from. Listen to them. Guide them.
Then, after you’ve done that, shut that nonsense down immediately. I don’t want your kid kicking me down a staircase in 20 years. I’ll do the same for you with my kids. We’ll thank each other one day.
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