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February 7, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 105

My Kid Complains Constantly. How Do I Get Him to Stop?

Episode 105

How should a parent respond to a kid who seems to complain all the time? Dr. Lisa explains why complaints, though often tedious to listen to, can actually play an important role in healthy development. Reena points out that parents are usually exhausted and trying to keep a positive energy around the house; Dr. Lisa and Reena address how parents might balance allowing kids to vent with the fact that complaining can bring everyone down. This episode also addresses when it’s time to worry about complaining and offers a fresh vantage point that might help you rethink your response the next time you ask your kid, “So, how was your day?”

February 7, 2023 | 29 min

Transcript | My Kid Complains Constantly. How Do I Get Him to Stop?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 105: My Kid Complains Constantly. How Do I Get Him to Stop?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
It’s the nagging. They tell me they say I nag all the time. But if I don’t nag, they’re not going to do it.

Lisa Damour
Yes, but as I’ve said before, you know, I don’t call it nagging in my house, I call it offering a helpful reminder, which of course everybody rolls their eyes and doesn’t think I’m funny. Like, I think I’m funny. But I think I’m funny.

Reena Ninan
They say my tone is off. They say that I should ask Nice. Or, uh, you know, I’m just over it. And so I want to read you another parent who’s also over it. Dear Dr. Lisa, my fifth grade son seems to come home from school in a terrible mood every day. When I asked him how the day went, he launches into a long list of complaints about his teachers, classmates, the lunchroom, his homework, everything. And when I try to offer suggestions, he rejects my advice. When I encourage him to have more of a positive attitude, he just gets more grumpy. I hate that he seems to be so unhappy about his days. And honestly, I hate that his complaining ruins my mood to what can I try to do to make things better? Thank you for your help. Oh my gosh. Where does one parent start when you want to limit the complaining, Lisa? It’s driving me mad too. Okay,

Lisa Damour
this I will tell you, we’ve gotten a lot of questions that I think are pretty universal. This may be the most universal question we have ever gotten. And I will tell you Reena until I had kids. I had no idea how much kids honestly read out minis were bitch about school. They they just see them at the end of the day. You haven’t seen them all day. And you’re like, Hi, how are you? And they’re like, Oh, let me just tell you now, right and they just start to grouse. And it is honestly, true confessions. And again, don’t tell anyone I said this is one of my least favorite parts of the day. Like I want to be so excited and be together and enjoy them. But I am usually so tired. And so Dawn, it takes a lot to get through this truly daily routine. I think it is daily routine and a lot of families. So,

Reena Ninan
I mean, how do you even begin to limit complaining in your house? What really works is what I want to know. Okay,

Lisa Damour
I’m gonna reject the premise. I’m not actually sure we can limit it, but we can respond in ways that make it work better for everybody. Okay. So Rena, I have a theory of complaining. Theory is too fancy word that here’s my view on complaining. Complaining works. If we manage it well at home. And by works, what I mean is complaining supports exactly what we want, which is that our kids are great when they’re outside of the house, that they hold it together really well. And I think a lot of times I’ve heard even kids say this part of how kids manage themselves so gracefully and in such a lovely way through the school day. Is there like keeping a catalog? Oh, just wait till I talk. This one at home. Right? And that’s part of how they can bear it. Okay, so are you ready for my grand theory of complaining?

Reena Ninan
Boy, am I I’ve got my cup of tea here. Okay, hit me.

Lisa Damour
Here’s how I think about complaining. I think about complaining as the result of kids collecting what I would call emotional garbage all day long. Okay, so here I am. Let’s say I’m in the this kid’s fifth grade. Let’s say I’m in the fifth grade. So Here, I’m in the fifth grade and I go to school and I’m in my, you know, math class. And the teachers are like, Alright, today we’re going to rearrange seats. And so now I think that maybe magically, I’ll get sat next to my very best friend in class. And instead, the teacher puts me next to the kid I least want to sit with right stuff like this happens all the time in school. Okay, this fifth grader, and I’m assuming the fifth grader in this letter handles it like a pro, right? They are like, hi, have a seat, they hold it together. They don’t throw themselves on the floor. They don’t, you know, smack the kid they don’t want to sit next to. But what I like to think is, it’s like they’ve taken a piece of emotional garbage, and they’ve jammed it in their pocket, and then they go on to the next class. Okay, so then they get to the next class, and they’re like, it’s maybe it’s Friday afternoon. And the kids like, I don’t think I have that much homework for the weekend. I think I’m totally off the hook. And the teacher is like, Oh, everybody, I just remembered that over the weekend, I want to make sure you’ve all finished that book. And your kids like, crazy, you know, when they get out their planner, and they write it down, and they don’t throw themselves on the floor, and they don’t, you know, start a revolt in the classroom. And they take that piece of emotional garbage, and they jam it in their pocket. Okay, all day long school is like this, right? You’re sitting next to kids, you don’t want to be with teachers or doing stuff you don’t like, you know, there’s all sorts of injuries and frustrations in the school day. And kids are amazing through it. And then I think what happens and this is how we want to sort of frame up this moment, is they get home and we’re like, how was school? And they just start throwing all the garbage at us that they have been saving all day, dying to get out of their pockets? Mm hmm.

Reena Ninan
So it sounds like it’s like if this is like an energy shield that they’re absorbing all this crazy energy that’s being flung through them. And they’re okay. Okay, I’ve got to make it through. I’ve got to make it through and then they come home and it like,

Lisa Damour
I think that’s right. So here’s my advice. Reena, when you ask your kid How was school, you want to picture yourself opening an emotional garbage back, right? You are there just to collect the energy debris of the day, all the stuff your kids saved up so that they did not throw themselves on the floor in class, or they did not smack that kid. They don’t want to sit next to a point you are there just to let them dispose of it. Dispose of it.

Reena Ninan
Wow. I’ve never looked at it that way that you’re letting them unload on you. It goes into the garbage. So they’re not doing something else crazy, or that they’d really rather do to deal with it. It’s cool.

Lisa Damour
Absolutely. Okay, so what this looks like is like, let them vent, just let them vent. And you know that we’ve talked about this before. Like, if you have some burrowing up piece of advice, you can say, Do you want my help? Or do you just need to vent, most of the time, they’re like, keep the bag open, don’t say anything, just don’t go garbage in the bag. They are there to vent. And if you move yourself out of that, like I’m here to problem solve, I’m here to get them to cut it out. If you move yourself out of that role. And I do this Rena, this is how I think about 536 o’clock in my household. I’m like, How was school? Open the garbage bag, I let my kid just tell me all of the frustrations and injuries of the day or you know, all the crimes committed around her that she said nothing about like, whatever, she just held them together. And I mostly just nod and say, oh, man, that stinks. Or I can see why you feel really frustrated about that. And what usually happens is having disposed of all the garbage, she feels much better, and carries on with the rest of her evening because she’s now garbage free, ready for another day of stuffing garbage in her pockets.

Reena Ninan
So what you’re saying is that emotional dump onto the parents actually really helps the kid.

Lisa Damour
It does help the kid, it can leave the parent feeling really like the parent in the slot or sounds like it kind of ruins my mood. It’s not that fun.

Reena Ninan
It’s like it feels to me like an energy transfer that you don’t want. You know, like you stay away from that energy transfer. Yeah, through the energy vampires, they suck all the good energy out of you is what I feel like it but they’re your own child. So you can’t avoid that.

Lisa Damour
No, it’s true. They they know where we live, right? Do you know where we live? So I think I will tell you in full disclosure, having this visual for myself of just opening the garbage can and letting them dump makes it all a lot more bearable. Because I’m not fighting. I’m not like, oh boy, why did that happen? Or I’m sure the kids are sitting next to us fine, in which case they’re like, oh my gosh, he is so not fine, right? I mean, like, that’s usually how this goes. So it’s more bearable. If I’m not trying to fight it. Try not trying to get it to stop not trying to give advice, which is almost never welcome in these moments. But I’m not saying it’s fine. And I think that part of what I love about our podcast is we can use it as a place to build community and empathize around some of the harder parts of parenting. And for me, this is one of the harder parts of parenting right like, I am doing this I really believe it works. I watch my kid feel better. I get it that this is how my kid can hopefully be good all day. Long isn’t knowing that they can come home and dump this garbage. Even still, I’m like, here we go. Here we go. And it’s not my favorite part of the night. But what it helps me and it helped me a lot more after this episode is like now I know I’m part of a broad community of parents are like, here we go. This is not fun, but it works for the kid in a way that is actually worth preserving.

Reena Ninan
Yeah. You know, one thing that’s really helped for me at my home is you you’ve set a bedtime, sometimes you crawl into bed a little earlier, and then a kid comes over and talks to you. But by the way, that’s been amazing for me in my household, because I hear a lot of things happen. But when they come home from school, or they’re dealing with an issue and their dumping whatever time of day. And let’s say they do want your advice, and you do give them advice, but they reject it. How do you deal with that? Right? So complaining continues complaining continues.

Lisa Damour
So maybe you have like great advice, and maybe you’re even maybe they’ve even said they want your advice, right? So I would say the first thing you do before even trying to give advice is to say, Do you want my advice? Or do you need to just need to have that, right? Like we’ve said, and if they say, Sure, show me what you got? You might say, well, what if you ask the teacher of maybe in the next round of when the seats are reshuffled, you could be next to your good friend, right? This is a totally reasonable thing to ask. And you’re just like, oh, no, that won’t work, that will work better. And you’re like, okay, and then you have another piece of brilliant advice, like, well, what if you and the kids like, no, no, no, that won’t work either. Right. And this is something that happens in parenting, where kids will say they want our help. And then we are just like, so useful and smart and wise. And they’re like, that’s a dumb idea. That’s a dumb idea. That’s another dumb idea. And they reject, reject, reject. Usually what’s happening in that dynamic is that the kid feels helpless about what’s going on. And they’re making you feel as helpless as they feel. And so it’s a place where you want to actually start to move towards thinking my kids feeling helpless. And I probably want to go there.

Reena Ninan
Interesting. Okay, that’s great advice. Lisa, how do you work through a kid sense of hopelessness, what works? What do you need to keep in mind?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, so that dynamic, where you’re offering great ideas, and the kid is just, you know, giving you that, you know, just pushing them all away. What I think of those moments, kids are feeling helpless, you know, they’re feeling like there’s nothing that can be done. And it can be really useful to say, Hey, I hear that you feel helpless about your seating arrangement, or that you’re going to have any fun this weekend. And it can actually work really well just to empathize with their helplessness to say like, that’s gonna be really lousy to feel helpless about how seating is happening in class. I am amazed by how often that actually gives kids some relief, like, Okay, that was

Reena Ninan
just by saying, Yeah, despite acknowledging their helplessness, just by simply acknowledging makes a difference. Yeah. And

Lisa Damour
just being empathic, like that would really stink to feel helpless about how the seedings gonna go all year, like, I’m sorry, I hate that you have that feeling? For a lot of kids, they’re like, Okay, you got it. You heard what I was trying to say. And they’ll let it go at that point. So I guess my experience is apparent, is like, you know, you need to pull this out when you feel like you’re in a conversational death spiral with a kid where you’re like, Okay, but what about this? And they’re like, No, that’s the dumbest idea ever. What about this, that’s the dumbest idea, actually, second to the first dumbest idea you’ve ever given. If you find yourself in a conversational death spiral with a kid, try saying, My hunch is you feel helpless. And I hate that you feel that way?

Reena Ninan
Wow, I never thought to use that. It

Lisa Damour
works. It can be pretty effective works. It is.

Reena Ninan
So what do you do if there’s Is there anything that we can do, to get kids to take advice we know is going to work. But they’re stubborn, and they don’t want to take it.

Lisa Damour
So in order to get a kid to take advice, you have to do a lot first. So the first thing you have to do is you have to really, really listen, like let them say it all. Then you have to ask permission, you know, do you want my help? Or just need to vent? And if they say I do want your help? Then I think a reasonable thing to say is what have you thought of what have you already tried? Because the other thing because our kids are really smart. They’ve already tried things. And so it doesn’t help the conversation. If you’re like, we’ll do this and like, I did that. Yeah, and then say, Okay, I have a few ideas. I usually am pretty humble and how I offer them I’ll say I have a few ideas. I don’t really understand the dynamics, but like, I’m happy to put them on the table and we can see if they may have any, you know, inspiration even for what might work. So put your ideas forward in a very You know, kind of tentative way, don’t assume that you get what’s really happening. But this is a moment where we as parents get to be like coaches, right, we’re not going to do it for them, we’re not going to call the teacher and say you need to rearrange the classroom seating, but where we do want to start to help them learn how to advocate for themselves, while being very, very aware that there are a lot of dynamics at play in a classroom that our kid may be aware of that we cannot know.

Reena Ninan
And do you find often, it’s just so frustrating as a parent when you want them to take the advice? And then they won’t? It’s so frustrating dealing with that, because we keep complaining about it, they keep dealing with it. But it’s like you feel like you’re running around in circles, I

Lisa Damour
guess. You do. But you know, you know, we had a recent podcast about the social coaching the parents do. And we brought up that metaphor of your every conversation. Think of it as like you’re moving the football down the field a little bit, right, you’re not going to get a touchdown every time. But that doesn’t mean the ball has moved. We’re not I’ve had people reach out to me saying like, that was a really helpful metaphor. And so I just think we want to kind of always bear it in mind that you don’t get a score on every play. We are often talking about stuff with kids over and over again before they finally move on it. And our job is not to feel despairing when they don’t do what we suggest. The first time we suggested it, or the fifth time we suggested, but to sort of stay in that conversation and trust that our kid may need time to work their way up towards it.

Reena Ninan
When should you worry less about how much your kid is complaining?

Lisa Damour
This is a really important question, right? I mean, I, again, I will stand by it. Most kids complain most days. And you know, there’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, it may be a very well working system for them being the wonderful humans, they generally are at school. But I think there are some things we want to watch out for. So the first question I would ask is after vigorous round of complaining, does your kid feel better? Even though you may feel quite a bit worse? And the answer is? If the answer is yes, it’s working, right? They have unloaded everything that was weighing them down today. And they’re good to go. And they gotta go back in tomorrow with more garbage collecting. To be sure happening, they better go in with empty pockets. What I would watch out for is the kid complaints, complaints, complaints. You listen, listen, validate don’t try to help too much let them just fend. And it doesn’t seem to lighten their load. Right. That would be for me very concerning, where they are just not helped by the disposal process like that just they still feel really lousy afterwards, then I would be more concerned that would be the grounds for concern. And so I would like to do at that point. So what I would do probably is, you know, I’m thinking it depends on the age a little bit. But with a younger kid, like a fifth grader, if they are really bringing home a lot of displeasure and a lot of unhappiness and just grousing about it isn’t seeming to fix it. I might consider a call to the teacher. But I would do it in a particular way. I might consider calling and saying, hey, you know, I saw appreciate what you guys are doing. Here’s what we’re running into at home, here’s what he’s describing to me, can you give me some insight on this. So don’t assume it’s 100% the reality. Don’t assume that it means that the grownups at school are messing things up. But do appreciate that. Teachers schools have huge amounts of information. And if you ask in a way that is collaborative and curious, they are often fantastic partners and trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

Reena Ninan
That’s great advice. That’s really good to keep in mind good. Sometimes you forget with the resources at school. So how do you especially if you feel your child might be more predisposed to be negative? Should you encourage them to be more positive? Like if you want the outcome for them to like stop complaining as their first default? Is it possible to change it and to get them to be more positive? What works for that?

Lisa Damour
I think you can get there. But I think what we would assume would work usually backfires. So Right. I think that usually when kids are like, and then this dumb thing happened, and then that dumb thing happened we like but I’m sure something good happened today or like, I’m sure it’s not that bad. Or like you know, you make your own luck, right? Like that kind of sunny to the point of saccharin positivity. I will tell you, certainly by adolescence, any kid is going to be like, Oh, I am digging in now. Like I am not going to join you on that. I’m actually going to give you 14 More examples of how dumb my day was. Right. I think that that’s because it feels invalidated. Right? Kids will feel that it’s truly hearing me so I’m gonna get louder on what I was saying. Okay, so here’s the ninja move that can sometimes help and I’ll tell you where this has come up in my clinical work. I was caring for a family where They needed to change schools for their kid. And the family made a decision, I thought it was a very smart decision about the school they wanted their daughter to go to. And she was, I think seventh grade. And the daughter was not entirely on board with this, she really didn’t want to leave her old school, but I think it was a right a right thing to do. And so to try to convince her or get her more excited about the new school, they were like, but it’s fantastic. It’s got all these wonderful features, you know, they were always like, giving her like the list of 40 pros for the new school, which only because she was a teenager with her salt inspired her to point out all the shortcomings of the new school, just to adopt the position of like, you don’t get it, you don’t get it, I’m gonna have to prove it to you 14 more times. So my advice to them and then we’ll figure out how this abstract extrapolates to family life. I said to them, lowball it, right, say to her, Look, we got it. Like there’s no perfect school, and there’s a lot of shortcomings with the school that we’re gonna have you go to, we’re sure it’s not perfect. It may be far from perfect. But we know we really believe that it’s a better choice than where you’re at. And here’s our hope is that over time, you might come to feel that there are some things about the school that are okay, right. So it’s a really, really cool. And the reasoning here is, you’re not trying to push her to have a feeling, you’re just leaving the door open that she might get there. And I think that that for kids is going to be vastly more effective than trying to convince them of how they’re supposed to feel. So I think we could do that in the day to day.

Reena Ninan
kind of tell you this episode makes me realize how excited I am that next week, your brand new book on the emotional lives of teenagers is coming out. Because it just realized I want a deeper dive like I just this isn’t enough. Now. I just realized what’s at stake. And I want to know what works and doesn’t really work. Well. It’s funny,

Lisa Damour
actually, I have a whole section in that book called How to give advice to a teenager. And I have I love my editor has been my editor for the same same editor for untangled and under pressure. And she like wrote in the margin, she was like, we could also call this how to hand feed a bear, right, which is like the name of something else, like something else is called that. And she was like she was sort of making a joke. But she was like, I wonder if we could do something like that. And we ended up leaving and it’s just like how to give advice to a teenager. But she and I were having fun on the page just about like, it’s hard to give them advice. And I think takeaway for this one is that’s often not what they’re looking for when they bring us complaints. You know, I think that that’s the key we want to really underscores that. Most of the time when kids are bringing us complaints. It’s not because they’re like, I’m bringing this to you so you can fix it. So like I’m bringing this to you just like can register my complaint with the complaint office like I just want to leave it here. And we want to let them do it. And, and I’m thinking about doing it like in the day to day, you know, we want kids to be more positive. I do think that we could say things like you know what it sounds like it was really lousy. I’m hoping tomorrow some stuff happens. It’s no work in or you can even say like, I get it. That’s a really was kind of not a great one. Tell me one good thing that happened. Like was there anything fun that happened? Like you could do it in that way, like give me one fun thing that happened or one thing that you’re looking forward to tomorrow, great. If you’ve let kids say their piece about all of the injustices of the daily school experience, they may be more open to joining you and like what was fun to hear something you enjoyed or something you look forward to, that can work as a strategy.

Reena Ninan
That’s awesome. So what do you have firstly, set for parenting to go?

Lisa Damour
Honestly, on this one Reena, I think we want to imagine how we would want somebody to respond to us when we’ve got a complaint, right? We don’t want to face either, that when we come home, and we’re like, oh my gosh, you have to hear what happened at the office. Like the last thing we usually want is for our friend or spouse to be like, Oh, well, you know what you should have done? Like, what are you saying? Totally exactly how are kids feel? Right? So if you’re having any trouble just letting them bring a Latinum dog. But if the garbage metaphor doesn’t work for you just picture what is it, you ideally would want somebody to say to you in that moment and do that for your kid?

Reena Ninan
Sometimes you forget, there are also human beings that have similar motivations and interests as you to have. Absolutely and and

Lisa Damour
I’ll just say this are in a position all day where they have vastly fewer choices than we do as adults, right school, even the med schools, right? You’re dealing with a whole bunch of people you don’t do not choose all day, every day repeatedly.

Reena Ninan
Our kids are great. So Lisa, I am so excited next week to talk about your book, which will officially launch on Tuesday. If you haven’t pre ordered the emotional lives of teenagers, you should tell us a little bit more about what we’re going to discuss next week.

Lisa Damour
Well, we’re going to talk about key points in the book and what readers will find there. But in Arena one of the things that happens with a book as you write it, you hand in the manuscript and then of course, your mind keeps going. So there’s also things I’ve thought about more or that have become more salient even in the news since I wrote the book, things that are in the book, but that now feel even more underscored by new studies coming out and research that we’ve got. So we’ll talk about the book itself but also thought beyond.

Reena Ninan
I can’t wait you have put so much research into this book. You clinical experience your experience as a psychologist over the years, I just think it’s so valuable. So I can’t wait for everyone to read this incredible incredible. I think it’s like a book of research but you make it so conversational as you always do.

Lisa Damour
Thank you Reena. I’m excited about it.

Reena Ninan
We’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
See you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

My new book is now available!

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents