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May 17, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 81

Why Is Our Kid Being So Mean to Us?

Episode 81

How should you respond when your kids are mean to you? What’s age-appropriate behavior and what should not be tolerated? Dr. Lisa and Reena unpack why kids lash out and what’s behind the outbursts. How do you know when hormones are the cause or when it’s something else? Dr. Lisa has advice on how to create a safe space for kids at home that allows them to work through their frustrations but also teaches them what’s acceptable in the real world.

May 17, 2022 | 28 min

Transcript | Why Is Our Kid Being So Mean to Us?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 81: Why Is Our Kid Being So Mean To Us?

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.

REENA: I can’t shake this feeling of exhaustion all the time. I can’t even say the word exhaustion. I’m so exhausted.

LISA: Reena, I laid down at 6:15 yesterday afternoon.

REENA: You did?

LISA: Yeah, and I never do that, and I just couldn’t get it together. So I just was like, I’m going to go lay down.

REENA: Why? It’s like my brain is constantly on all the time thinking about what to cook for dinner or did we clean up this, I’ve got to finish this for the company. How do we reset that sometimes?

LISA: Well, I think summer will help, and one of the sayings in schools that I think is really helpful is the idea of 100 days of May. It’s almost like the winter holiday in terms of all the extra demands, but there’s just so much stuff you have to do to get kids out of the school year and get kids into the summer and so I think part of the exhaustion I’m feeling is the double life quality of it. I’m trying to help them close down and go to all these events for the end of the school year, which are lovely, while also doing all of this negotiating around how we’re spending the summer, who’s where, what are we doing, and then of course our jobs on top of that. So, this is just a very, honestly, the word that comes to mind is tedious time. It’s a tedious time, Reena.

REENA
: It is. You’re right. That’s a good way of looking at it. On top of feeling exhausted, all of us feel that exhaustion and like my brain isn’t fully functioning. What do you do when your kids are so mean, and you have very little patience? This was a letter we got from a parent who asked about that. It says: ‘Dear Dr. Lisa and Reena, my 10-and-a-half-year-old daughter is getting so mean. She’s in the fourth grade. Why is she already acting like a hormonal teenager? It’s worse when she’s tired but is this age-appropriate behavior or is she just mean? She called my husband and I idiots last night, and just trying to figure out what the right consequences are and how to combat that feeling like a sudden change in behavior. It only happens at home, which is definitely her safe space. Nothing environmental seems to be wrong. And isn’t she too young for hormonal changes? So what’s up? Thank you.’ Oh my gosh there’s so much to this letter.

LISA: The writer helps us out a lot by just saying, everything’s fine, because of course that’s the first question, is there something wrong? Is there something amiss? And the writer’s like, nope, there is no environmental explanation for what’s going on. Like, things are normal.

REENA: So how do you respond about that behavior in the moment? Because that’s what’s so hard, right?

LISA: Yeah, well, if your kid calls you an idiot, which it sounds like they did, it’s kind of hard to not have a knee jerk reaction to that. I just want to say any parent who has responded quickly and harshly to that certainly has my sympathies, and I actually, there’s lines we cannot cross, but I actually think it’s okay when kids are so out of bounds to be like, woah, no. You don’t use those words around here or anywhere really. And so much of what I think about as I listen to this letter is parents are teachers, and we teach kids how they’re supposed to operate in the world and the rule that we have to live by, Reena, is no one is going to think our kids are cute as we think our kids are, right? And so we cannot allow them to conduct themselves at home in ways that would be totally unacceptable in the outside world and we’re not doing them any favors if we do. A lot of home life is training ground for developing the repertoires that are going to let kids be successful in the outside world, and so not reacting strongly to a kid calling you an idiot is not doing that kid a favor.

REENA: So, how do you even, sometimes you want to make sense of that behavior. How do you make sense of that? Because you’re always wondering as a parent, where’s this coming from?

LISA: Yeah, so you’re kid calls you an idiot, I think it’s really okay to be like, woah, woah, woah, that is totally over the line why don’t you go take a break, cool off, we’re not even having a conversation if you’re going to talk to me like that. I really think it’s important, and I think the thing that parents want to check is where did that even come from? Like exactly what you’re saying. Why did your kid do that? And there’s a lot of reasons a kid could do that. And one of the ways we always want to approach these things in terms of something that deserves a reaction, and this definitely deserves a reaction, is to be, and I’m going to use this term liberally, kind of diagnostic about it.

REENA: What does that mean?

LISA: Like there’s a problem to be fixed but you can’t fix the problem until you diagnose the problem correctly. First you diagnose it and then you come up with a treatment for it. In terms of possible diagnoses for why a kid is suddenly firing off terms like, you guys are idiots, so one is the kid’s exhausted and cranky, and their impulses are strong and their controls are weak, and they were mad at the parent, which is totally fine, kids get mad at the parent, but because they are, the term we use around our house is ropey, like at the end of their rope, they’re all ropey, they’re all tired, they said something that was totally out of line. That’s one diagnosis. The treatment for that would be like, okay, we do not talk that way and also you need to go to bed at 8 o’clock tonight and for the next four nights. That’s one thing to do. Another diagnosis could be, and I’ve seen this, sometimes kids start watching really rude TV. Have you ever seen this at home?

REENA: Yes. Oh my gosh yes. I know exactly what you’re talking about and then you know exactly where this behavior came from.

LISA: Yeah, and I’ve had this happen as a parent where I’ll come around the corner and see the stuff they’re watching and I go, what is that? Like that’s totally out of line. And I’ve known in families where kids watching a fair bit of those kind of snarky, kind of sardonic, just kind of nasty in a way. You know what I’m talking about. It’s supposed to be funny, it’s not funny, where they’re watching a lot of that and it does kind of seep into how they are acting. And so if that’s the diagnosis, I think it’s like, okay, you’re not watching that stuff anymore. I’m knocking you back to PBS. You’re PBS-only for three weeks or whatever. Because you can’t watch that and keep a filter between what you’re watching and how you act.

REENA: You know fourth grade I’m just thinking about how at that age they just think it’s funny and don’t know it’s not inappropriate or you can’t talk to adults like that, right? So, in the moment, what do you say to them to get through that what you’re watching on TV is not appropriate behavior.

LISA: Yeah, I think it really does help if you can say, we do not speak this way in this house and you know that. I think that it’s really important for parents to set the standard for how we speak to one another at home, and it does not work, Reena, if parents sometimes devolve to name-calling, even if they never do it to a child but just do it with their spouse or with their partner. Like you have to really, the thing you should be able to fall back on is, we don’t do that here and you’ve never seen that done here so you can’t do it here. And so then I would say if a parent’s like, oof maybe I can’t say that, maybe I’ve gotten really hot and said things I didn’t mean to say, then I think the parent needs to be able to say to that child, you know what? I know you’ve heard name-calling sometimes from the adults and that was wrong, and in the heat of the moment we may not appreciate that that’s wrong, but now that I hear you do it, and I realize you may have learned that from us, we need to reset. That is really not an acceptable way to be with anyone.

REENA: That’s one of the big things I’ve really taken away from this podcast is admitting to your child that you are wrong or that your behavior is wrong and how valuable it is for them to hear that.

LISA: Absolutely. Absolutely. Okay, I’m going to throw a third diagnosis on the table here, which is that these are words being thrown around at school or this is how kids are treating one another at school. Presumably at recess or at lunch when adults can’t keep a close eye on things. And so after shutting down the behavior, after saying, that’s totally unacceptable you do not speak to me that way, I think it might be worth going back and revisiting that possibility, especially if you know it’s not because your kid’s tired, it’s not because your kid’s watching snarky TV. I think it’s worth going back and saying, where did that even come from? Like we don’t even use that word. Is that something that kids are saying on the playground? Is it something kids have said to you? Where is this from?

REENA: Wow, I hadn’t even thought of that, that’s so good.

LISA: Yeah, because it is strange as a parent when you’re like, what is this? And I think it gets at a dynamic that is sort of interesting. I don’t feel like this has come up between us before and it’s a really important dynamic in parenting, which is that sometimes kids will communicate how they’re feeling or how something felt by making the parent have the feeling.

REENA: Wow.

LISA: And it’s subtle and it’s unconscious and I’ll tell you a really good example from my clinical practice that just brings it so much to life. So I was actually doing parent coaching for a mom who, great mom, great kids, but the mom came in and she confessed that she was finding her kindergartner to be incredibly annoying. She was like, I feel really bad, I love my kid, but right now I’m not always liking my kid, and I was so glad she could just say those words because I think that’s an experience parents have, like unconditional love, sometimes conditional like.

REENA
: That’s so good.

LISA: And so she was like, my kid’s just being annoying. I get her home from school after kindergarten and she’s just kind of irritating to be around and so the mom and I unpacked this for a while and what we theorized, and our theory seemed to be borne out by success in our intervention, what we theorized is that it was very annoying for the kid to do full-day school.

REENA: Oh, it was like too much?

LISA: It was too much and not that the kid couldn’t handle it, it was worth staying in, but for this particular child, and this isn’t altogether rare, the full school day was new in kindergarten. All the preschool stuff had been part-day, half day, in that wade-in sort of way, but so to be at school, all day, around peers all day, which is really challenging, we have to remember that, I thought maybe this is more taxing on this child than we’re appreciating. So, my guidance to the mom, I said when your kid comes home and she starts being really annoying, say to her, I’m wondering if being at school all day with all your friends, even though there’s a lot you like, I’m wondering if it’s annoying to be around people all day long at school.

REENA: Interesting.

LISA: So, the mom did this and came and reported back and the kid was like, it is. And then they talked about that way in which it’s very, very tedious, to be back to that word tedious, to have to accommodate oneself all day, to the demands of other children who really can be annoying even though they’re all wonderful kids but all day every day can be a lot, and that this child, at five, understandably, did not have the fluency to come home and be like, mom, I’ve got to tell you this is a lot of annoying kids, and so the way it was playing out is that the child was being very irritating herself, and once they could move it to the plane of discussing it as the child’s experience, the child no longer needed to inflict it on the parent to express the experience. So I do wonder, with this kid being mean, right? I’m wondering, one diagnosis for us to consider here is the kid giving the parent a taste of what the kid is being served all day.

REENA: I hadn’t thought about that. Lisa I want to also ask you about hormones. We’re going to take a quick break and be right back.

REENA: I’m kind of curious about how can you tell if this is hormonal? Because fourth grade, could it possibly be when hormones are starting to kick in?

LISA: Well, actually it could. The letter writer is like, this is too early, she’s not a teenager yet, why is she being so snarky, but one of the things we’ve talked about a lot on this podcast is number one, adolescence begins at 11, so this kid is not off the mark by any measure, and truly, Reena, even if there’s not outwardly visible signs, a lot of kids, and especially girls, have pubertal activity and hormonal changes certainly afoot by 10-and-a-half, which is young, and in its own way alarming, but that is actually pretty much the norm. But the piece about hormones that we want to be thoughtful about is everybody blames hormones. They blame testosterone on boys and they blame estrogen on girls for this emotionality, but when we do studies, and we really have this neat way that we study these things, where we follow along with mood and moodiness and we will quite literally have kids spit in cups so we can measure their hormones in the moment.

REENA: What? Are you serious?

LISA: Yeah.

REENA: Is that available over the counter for parents?

LISA: Well, I’ll tell you what, you’re not going to need it because it turns out that there’s actually very little correlation between hormone levels in saliva, so like in the moment of hormone levels, and the emotionality of the child. So, hormones kind of get unfairly blamed in a way. But the way they’re not unfairly blamed is they are driving neurological changes.

REENA: Interesting.

LISA: So, it’s kind of correct and it’s kind of not correct to blame hormones. You probably don’t want to say it to your kid in the same way you would probably never say to your wife, are you about to get your period?

REENA: Totally, drives me nuts. Nobody wants to hear that.

LISA: So, we wouldn’t say that to a kid. So, the bottom line, this is a really round-the-way answer is to say this, it probably is a neurological change driven by hormones that is making this child more emotional. So, that diagnosis I think we can go ahead and make that one, though there may be a couple diagnoses at play here, and the reality is, on the way into adolescence, kids just become more emotional. Their emotions are more supercharged, they’re more intense, their ability to stop themselves from doing impulsive things is relatively weak. And the reassurance I can offer this writer is that it tends to peak, especially for girls, around 13 and for boys around 14. That it comes out of the gate fast, it peaks early in adolescence, and then emotionality, it’s actually kind of amazing to look at the charts, it goes down in a very steep line, 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds tend to be much steadier, much easier going, much less reactive, so what I would say to this parent is okay, you’re in it, you’re underway with it, you’re going to have to draw lines, you’re going to have to diagnose the problem and treat it accordingly, but it’s not going to be full-blast for very long.

REENA: Okay. Okay. That’s really nice to hear. If you know it’s hormones, how can you best deal in the moment with that? Like if you know to yourself, this has got to be hormonal changes?

LISA: Yeah, like there’s something that the kid can’t control at work here.

REENA: Yes.

LISA: You know, it takes us back. I love the way themes emerge in our podcast over a number of different questions, we’ll come back to some central ideas. I think it really takes us back to that idea of giving kids another chance, not reacting too strongly to anything, not basically cornering them when they’ve done something they didn’t mean to do. So, I think if we’re like, it’s very clear that there’s a lot going on. It’s not unusual for parents even to see a surge in this kind of behavior just as they’re watching a whole lot of pimples break out across their kid’s nose, and maybe breast buds. There’s moments in parenting where you’re like, I know what’s happening. I can see it all at once. I think in those moments what we want to remember is there’s a part of the kid that is acting badly and acting in ways that are out of control, and there’s always, always, always another part of the kid that’s like, what was that? Like what did I just do? And my probably number one rule in parenting, through adolescence especially, is that we have to remember these two sides of our children live together, and the side of our child that we speak to is the side that shows up for the conversation.

REENA: So, you’re saying if you’re snapping at them because they’re so rude and mean to you, they’re going to keep exhibiting that behavior over and over again.

LISA: Exactly, you’re basically engaging the worst side. And so then the alternative is the kid says, you guys are idiots, and so the first thing you do is, woah, woah, woah, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Like stop right there, and then you let it cool off, and I think that’s actually really key and I don’t want to blow past that. You need to let things cool down. The kid who just said that, they were dysregulated, they were having a moment where their impulses were really, really powerful, let that settle.

REENA: I can’t let that settle. I’m so angry with them, Lisa, at that point and I want to deal with it right away. I want them to know they can’t do that to me, and I don’t have time to wait to cool off.

LISA: I know, but it only works better if you do. But you can deal with it right away by saying like, stop, do not do that, but let it cool off, but then come back and say, what was that? And when you say what was that, you’re talking to the part of the kid that’s like, I don’t know what that was, that freaked me out too. And so all through parenting adolescents, we are constantly aligning ourselves with the thoughtful, broadminded, kind part of our kids that is really, really there. So, I’d almost say to this parent, like first of all welcome to parenting a teenager, let’s just name it for what it is, and welcome to your new alliance with the better part of your kid. And you’re going to align with this side. You’re going to be tight with this side to try to help them make sense of when they’re doing things that are mean or dumb or just thoughtless, but you’re not going to treat your child as though they are mean or dumb or thoughtless.

REENA: That is so hard. When you say cool-off period, do I give them a day? Do I say, hey, listen, I know you’re not in a good place. I’m going to let you cool off and then I’ll give you five minutes and we’ll talk about this.

LISA: I think I would do it this way. I think I would say to them, that was totally out of line, we do not speak that way. Why don’t you give yourself a little time away and you come back when you’re ready to have this conversation because we do need to have this conversation. So, I would put it on the child to pull themselves together for however long they need to, also making it clear you’re not off the hook, we’re having this conversation.

REENA: But they can still control when we have that conversation. Boy, that is not how I’ve been doing that in my house, which explains a lot.

LISA: Well, I’m sure it’s not how I’ve been doing it, Reena. It’s all very easy in theory, then there’s the actual real-life versions of these stories.

REENA: It’s so hard, even as an adult, especially as an adult, to not react in that moment when you feel so disrespected and like I mentioned at the top of the podcast, our patience is so low at this point and we are all exhausted.

LISA: Well, that is exactly it, Reena, and I’ve been thinking a lot about normal development and normal development is a bumpy road. There’s no getting around that. With or without a global pandemic, normal development is a bumpy road. And here we all are driving down this bumpy road as families, totally worn down, right? We are just worn down by the conditions of the last two years, and what it reminds me of, and the visual I get a lot is that we’re going down the typical bumpy road of adolescence and we’re in one of those really cool looking Jeeps with no shocks. You know? Like the open ones that are so awesome.

REENA: Totally.

LISA: And so everything that happens just rattles us and so we have to acknowledge that. We have to be tender with ourselves, we have to be tender with our kids, because there’s no version of the developmental story where it’s a smooth road. That’s not available to us and doesn’t need to be, but anything we can do to try to get our shocks back so that every bump doesn’t shake our bones, the better we’ll feel.

REENA: So, in the last couple minutes we have here, how can you create a safe space at home where kids can actually let their hair down and you don’t feel triggered by the meanness they say but you can sort of allow a place where they can exhibit that behavior and not feel like they’re going to be completely taken down?

LISA: Well, so it’s interesting, right? I love the way this parent asks, should home be a safe space? And the answer to that is yes, but I want us to say for what? So, it shouldn’t be a safe space for acting like a jerk. Like that to me feels really clear and it really goes back to that principle of home is where we teach kids how they’re supposed to conduct themselves in the world, and so you don’t get to be a jerk at home, like that feels to me, really central. But it can be a safe space for things like talking about how annoying classmates are and venting that out and being able to do so freely, knowing that this is what we only do at home and we actually do it in the service of being able to go back to school and be a polite citizen there. So I think that’s the kind of safe space I want us to make available to kids. Or, I will say certainly in my own home, we do a lot of joking around about stuff that is sort of mildly inappropriate in our own home, and it’s fun and it’s a little naughty, but it’s the kind of jokes I would not actually want my kids making with people outside of our home, and sometimes I’ll be like, you know we only joke about this kind of stuff here? And it’s silly stuff and that way of just being playful and enjoying each other with a clear sense of like, this is how we have fun together, but we have a clear sense of where this does and doesn’t happen. So I think in that way kids don’t have to be in formal dress at home, they can be in their casual clothing version of themselves, but they don’t get to mistreat anyone and they shouldn’t be mistreated. That, to me, feels like a line that never gets crossed.

REENA: So, wow. I like when I tape these podcasts with you and I realize I’ve got to really rethink things on how I respond. What do you have for us, Lisa, for parenting to go?

LISA: When I talk about us as parents using our behavior to set a standard in the home, it’s actually a standard that goes way beyond our home. So, there’s this standard of treating our children with dignity and respect so that we can then fully expect them to do the same. But the real mileage on this comes outside of our homes and in their lives for the rest of their lives, in terms of the standard they’ll hold for all of their relationships with people. That if we can help our kids get used to the idea that they should be treated with kindness, they will not tolerate relationships where they are not treated well by others, and that’s really the payoff we are looking for.

REENA: They need to learn to stand up for themselves.

LISA: Stand up for themselves, expect to be treated well, expect to treat other people well and to settle for nothing less.

REENA: Well, when you put it that way, I’m really rethinking how I do this at home. And next week, we’re going to wrap up Season 2 with our final episode and we’re going to look ahead to summer. Dr. Lisa’s got advice on what kids should be focusing on this summer. I’ll see you next week.

LISA: I’ll 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.

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