Ask the expert: My six-year-old son is very negative and often in a bad mood
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A grumpy child can be a challenge, but there are strategies to help you – and him. Photograph: Thinkstock
Q My son, who just turned six over Christmas, can be very negative and grumpy. He whines all the time when he doesn’t want to do things. Even when we take him swimming, he can whine and moan and say he does not want to go – despite the fact he always enjoys it when he gets there.
Sometimes when he wakes up in the morning, you can see by his face he is in a bad mood and it is going to be a struggle getting him up and out. When I point out to him I don’t want to see his “grumpy face”, he gets annoyed. I admit I get frustrated with him a lot.
Collecting him after school can be difficult. He can start complaining and whining the minute I meet him and this sets the tone for the next few hours. I’m not sure what we can do about it, whether it is just his personality, if there is something else going on or if he will grow out of it.
I should point out he is not always like this and there are many times he can be happy and fun. However, the grumpiness and negativity is taking away from this. Any advice would be appreciated.
A Learning to manage the ups and downs of moods and emotions is one of the most important life lessons children have to learn. Young children are often overwhelmed by their emotions of frustration, disappointment and anger, and only slowly learn how to manage and understand them.
Equally, they have to learn the hard lessons of discipline and motivation. They have to learn that sometimes we have to do things, even if we don’t initially feel like it, and that once we get going we can get into things, and so on.
The most important people to teach children about emotions are, of course, their parents. In fact, children depend on their parents to help them deal with upsetting feelings and to learn to motivate themselves.
The key in doing this is to try not to “react” to your child’s negative emotions, for example, with your anger and frustration, and instead help him identify and appropriately express the emotions he has.
Like adults after a day at work, many children feel tired after the school day and may come out in a bad mood. Simple things can make a difference, such as having a relaxing time immediately after school or making sure you have a healthy snack or drink available if he is hungry.
If you are concerned that something in particular might be worrying him at school or if he says something about this, check in with his teacher.
Try not to react
snap sometimes when your son is in a bad mood, it is best to try to respond calmly and warmly as much as possible. Here are a range of strategies that might help at different times.
1. Soothe and acknowledge his feelings: Try to pinpoint and name what he is feeling in an empathic tone, encouraging him to talk. You could say, “I know it is hard to get going when you are tired.” Showing you understand, by comforting him with hugs and being a shoulder to cry on, helps. You can encourage him with words like “Come on, let’s have a hug, you’ve had a hard day.”
2. Encourage him to talk: The goal is to help him talk about his feelings rather than taking them out on people. Talk to him: “You sound a bit grumpy, tell me what happened today. How are you feeling?” 3. Coach him in managing his feelings: Use the following phrases: “You will feel better once you get to swimming,” or “Let’s get home now and we will have a snack, you will feel better.” 4. Positively guide him: If he is expressing his feelings negatively, guide him on what you want him to do instead. Encourage him by saying: “Use your words to tell me what you are feeling,” or “Ask nicely and I might be able to help.” 5. Use distraction or humour: Moods can be lifted by humour, distraction and physical activity. You could try saying, for example, “Come on, let’s see your jolly face, let’s leave the grumpy face at home,” or “I’m going to wrestle you until you show me a smiling face.” 6. Take a pause: Sometimes the best approach is to pull back for a minute and give him space to settle his own emotions. This can work well if you find yourself getting annoyed or if you have snapped. 7. Talk about your own feelings: It is useful to talk about your own feelings so he understands what you are going through. You could say, “Mummy/Daddy is getting a bit annoyed now because we have to get going,” or “I’m sorry I shouted, let’s get home now for tea.” 8. Ignore and praise: If you have tried some of the strategies above and he is still negative, sometimes it is best to get on with things without paying him too much attention. For example, if he is protesting about going somewhere, just ignore it and keep going. Try to remember to return positive attention anytime he co-operates a little or gets on with it: “That is nice, thanks for closing the door,” or “We are on our way now, that is great.”
Dr John Sharry is a family psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering a one- day course on Positive Parenting for three- to nine-year-olds in Rochestown Hotel in Cork on Saturday, January 29th. Seesolutiontalk.ie for details.