Attitude—a parent’s worst nightmare. Evidence of an attitude begins as early as 2 years of age and remains intact through the teen years. Many parents become angry and intolerant of their child’s attitude and insist that it change. However, the demand for change frequently intensifies the condition, creating even more tension around the house. Although frustrating, the appearance of an attitude is actually a developmental achievement. In other words, despite the sense of disrespect and disruption, the child is actually trying to demonstrate two opposed positions simultaneously: 1. a desire for independence, and 2. an attempt to prevent a fear of dependency on parents. Such unconscious internal conflicts can produce an attitude, which is an attempt to protect the child’s feelings of vulnerability. By developing an attitude, the child has actually progressed and is not merely being difficult.
The observation of attitude is most prominent three times in a child’s development: between 2 to 4 (aka The Terrible Twos), 6 to 8, and 12 to 15. These particular times are when the child is shifting through the Separation-Individuation Phase of development, which are normal shifts representing psychological change needed for the individual to become a healthy adolescent and adult. However, most parents do not understand the healthy function of attitude and do not know how to deal with it when it becomes too much.
The first step for the parent is to understand the function of attitude and that it is a good sign. This will help the parent feel better and lessen the intensity between parent and child. Second, the parent needs to try to better understand why the child is in a bad mood and not take it personally. The third step is telling, NOT asking, the child how you think they are feeling based on their behavior or attitude. For example, when the parent explains to the child that their behavior is telling them that they are feeling angry and the parent is tolerant of the emotion, the child feels both informed and supported. This technique can help temper the ’tude.
Now that the child understands that you know what is going on and that you accept their feelings, you can ask them to express themselves in a more appropriate manner. In many cases, compliance will follow because they are aware of their own feelings and know that you understand. The final step is setting a limit. This step should be designed to help the child manage their feelings rather than make them feel bad about them. When 8 year old Timmy refused to take his evening shower, his mother responded by stating “Tim, I know you hate taking showers and are angry with me for making you take them, but it is important for your body to take one.” Timmy calmed down after this sensitive statement from his mother but continued to refrain from getting in the shower. She then replied, “Tim, your anger is okay, but you still need to take a shower and to HELP you manage your anger at me, if you don’t get in the shower by the count of 5, you will have to miss watching tonight’s episode of Sponge Bob.” Tim thought about this for a moment, but eventually got in the shower. Although this example might seem ideal, parents who use this technique report that their child’s attitude is much more tolerable than the parents who either avoid interacting with their child when they are in a bad mood or only punish their child when they act up. Whether a child is 2 or 14, they still need their parents to help them understand themselves and help them feel comfortable with their internal state of mind. Over time, this process becomes internalized and self-actualized, but usually not until late adolescence or early adulthood. In summary, when attitude is met with acceptance, understanding, communication, and guidance, its manifestation is greatly reduced, making households more functional through childhood and adolescence.
1. Attitude is a healthy developmental achievement beginning by age 2.
2. Attitude is most evident between ages 2 to 4, 6 to 8, and 12 to 14.
3. Parents need to be understanding and knowledgeable to mellow their child’s
4. Don’t take the attitude personally or react with haste. Label your child’s
feelings and guide them to resolution.
Dr. Keith Kanner, author of YOUR FAMILY MATTERS: Solutions to Common Parental Dilemmas. Dr. Kanner is a television personality and radio host as well as a Licensed Clinical Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychologist and Psychoanalyst with a full time private practice in Southern California. He is also an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and a Clinical Instructor and Supervisor at the San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.