When Kids Are Inflexible Tyrants
If everything has to be "just so" or else, parents actually need to invoke some chaos.
Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.
Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,
I have the most rigid child in the universe. When my son reads aloud and makes a mistake, he insists that he has to start reading all over from the beginning of the book. If I turn on the bath water when he said he wanted to turn it on, he refuses to take a bath entirely — even if I turn the water back off, drain the tub and tell him he can re-start it. If I put his sandwich on the wrong plate, it’s totally ruined and he demands I make an entirely new one. I feel like I’ve been locked in a mental prison and my totally irrational 5-year-old is holding the key. What do I do?!
Stuck at Alcatraz
Dear Stuck at Alcatraz,
I would like to send you some Xanax, but I doubt they would make it past your guard. In all seriousness, though, I’m so sorry to hear of your struggles, because what you’re going through is really hard — but I promise you, your child is not the most rigid child in the universe. In fact, we went through something quite similar with our now 10-year-old, but I’m happy to report that he has since (mostly) grown out of it.
I suspect, actually, that many of you who are reading this have similar stories to share. When I called up child development specialist Claire Lerner, the author of the wonderful new book Why Is My Child In Charge?, she said she’s been seeing a ton of this kind of inflexible behavior recently. “There is this increasing reliance on routines and rituals,” she said, “but it's like next level — where their blankets have to unfolded in a very specific way, or their parents have to say goodnight to them in a very routinized way with the same tone, and it could take an hour for the child to decide that parents have gotten it right.”
It’s hell on the parents, and on the kids too.
But your kid isn’t being rigid to make your life miserable — they’re feeling out-of-control (perhaps because of shifting Covid rules or the back-to-school transition), and they’re using rigidity as a means to gain control back. Research has linked inflexibility with childhood anxiety — when kids feel overwhelmed and out of sorts, they create rules and routines that give them a sense of power and control again. That could mean requiring you to cut their sandwiches a certain way, demanding a specific bedtime routine, only wearing clothes that feel or look a certain way, starting over from scratch when they make tiny mistakes, etc. (This inflexibility is related to perfectionism, but not exactly the same thing, which is why I decided to separate out these issues. If you want to learn more about handling perfectionism, read my newsletter from six weeks ago.)
Often, the kids who are exceptionally rigid are those who are temperamentally more sensitive and emotionally reactive. They can be “intense kids by nature, and they have very clear and fixed ideas in their head of what they expect,” Lerner said — and when those needs aren’t met, they do not know how to cope, and they melt down.
But there’s good news: You don’t have to meet all your kid’s irrational demands. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Here are some strategies that might, slowly, help your child ease up.
Acknowledge and validate your child’s frustration.
Those of you who are regular newsletter readers probably think I’m a broken record, but the first step in dealing with intolerable kid behavior is typically this: Don’t belittle their feelings, however irrational they may be. Validate them instead. Maybe say Oh honey, you’re so mad that I started the bath for you. It makes you feel out of control and angry. Or Oh my gosh, I cut the sandwich in a way you don’t like, and that is making you feel really uncomfortable and bad. Resist the impulse to rescue them from their feelings by saying things like It’s not that big of a deal or You’re OK! These are totally well-meaning reactions, but when we say things like that, we’re essentially telling our kids that their feelings are invalid, and this only makes it harder for them to handle them.
Don’t give into their demands (or at least, not every time).
Look, I’ve been there: Sometimes you don’t have the patience or the emotional reserve to handle yet another meltdown, so you’ll give in and do what your child demands. But as often as possible, do the opposite. After validating their feelings, say no — and then reassure them that they’re going to be OK.
Lerner told me the story of a child whose grandmother usually picked her up from school and parked in the exact same space every time. One day, her mom came to pick her up instead and parked somewhere else, and the little girl started screaming at her to move the car to the normal spot or else she wouldn’t go home. Although the demand probably seemed ridiculous and over-the-top to the mother, the girl was acting this way because she felt unsettled — things weren’t the way they usually are — and she was probably terrified that something bad would happen if they didn’t move the car to the regular spot.
If the mom had moved the car, she would essentially be reinforcing her daughter’s fear, making her feel it was legitimate. Far better, then, not to give into the demand and to instead deal with the ensuing meltdown — because ultimately, this would allow the child to discover that nothing terrible would happen if the car wasn’t moved. Lerner’s advice to the mom was to say something like this: I know, sweetie, your brain was telling you that Grandma's car was going to be in that space. And it's really uncomfortable to you to see that it's not the space you expected. I totally get that you don't like that. But we're going to get in the car, and we're going to go home, we're going to have our snack. And you're going to be OK.
“We have to be very sensitive and supportive of these kids but also help them adapt,” Lerner said. Once kids see to see that things end up fine even if their expectations aren’t met, they can begin to relax and become more flexible.
Acknowledge and encourage flexibility.
Every once in a while with my formerly very inflexible son, I would be pleasantly surprised to see him shrug things off without a problem. As parents, we should pay attention to and acknowledge these moments. Maybe say something like Thank you for not getting upset when I opened the car door for you just now, even though you probably wanted to open it yourself. I know that can be hard.
Likewise, when you have to be flexible, be open with your kids about how you handle it. Maybe it started pouring when you were waiting for the school bus, but you didn’t have your rain coat. When you see your child you could say Oh my gosh, I forgot my rain coat and I really don’t like getting rained on! But you know what, I only got a little wet and it actually felt kind of nice in this heat.
Also, think about the ways in which you might inadvertently be modeling inflexibility in front of your kids. Do you get upset when the school bus is three minutes late? Do you throw away your bagel when it’s a little over-toasted? Pay attention to what you might be doing to model rigidity, and ease up a bit — and, again, point it out to your kids when you do. Usually I don’t like my bagels this brown, but you know what? I decided to try this one anyway, and it’s actually pretty yummy with extra cream cheese.
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Book news: HOW TO RAISE KIDS WHO AREN’T ASSHOLES and I were featured yesterday on CNN.com! Huge thanks to Elissa Strauss for the wonderful interview. I was also live on the Studio 10 TV show in Australia on Tuesday morning talking about my book.
I really appreciate this post, but think the examples of what you might say to your kid need to be reformulated. It’s detrimental to a kid’s mental health to be told how they feel, à la, “You’re so angry that…” What about something like, “It looks like you’re angry because you’re doing XYZ” — this way, you’re owning your perception and inviting reflection. Seems like a subtle difference but it’s hard to overstate how important this is for a kid’s long-term emotional well-being.