Question: My 9 yr old son is very intelligent, very tender-hearted and very strong-willed. It’s proven to be a very challenging combination. I am now at the point where I feel like I am not sure how to help him, and I cannot accept his behavior anymore. He is extremely disrespectful, especially to me, he feels as though he is always right, and the most painful problem is that he feels like he is not treated, or even loved, the same as his older brother or younger sister. I have tried talking to him, grounding him, spanking him, and now I even find myself getting so frustrated with his attitude and hateful words that I am yelling at him. This is not the parent I want to be, and it’s not the relationship I want with my son. He is a different child at school, and I frequently get compliments from the teacher of the gifted program that he is in about how pleasant, polite, & well-mannered he is. I don’t understand why, no matter how hard I try, I can’t get the same behavior at home.
Dr. Meg’s Response: Your son’s behavior is pretty typical for a smart, obstinate, bright 9 year old. Why wouldn’t he want to run the show if he can figure out how? The good news for you is that his disrespect is a “mom thing” and it doesn’t appear to be anything deeper. If it were, he wouldn’t be an angel at school. When he tells you that he is treated differently than his siblings, he is right. You can’t parent him the same way because he’s a totally different child and this is fine. He’s trying to manipulate you into feeling guilty so that he can do whatever he wants. This little young man has your number. Here’s what I would do. First, find whatever it is that he loves and use this as leverage. He doesn’t respond to spanking, talking, etc., but I guarantee you there is something that he really wants that he doesn’t want taken away. SO find it. Once you do, do some mental preparation. You’re getting ready to go into battle and you need energy because this is a battle you must win. Figure out which of his behaviors offends you most. Pick one (I know there are probably a bunch including a “bad attitude.” Then you need to calmly and deliberately take him aside alone and talk to him. Tell him something like this: “ Tommy, you have a problem with the way you speak to me. I’m going to help you get it under control because respecting people is extremely important. Here’s what the plan is. From now on, you can no longer yell at me. Period. If you do, then I can’t allow you to ______ (go to soccer, or whatever he really wants to do) for three days. If I hear you yell, I’m not going to get mad or yell back, you just won’t go to soccer. This is a serious problem and we need serious answers. Do you have any questions?” Once you draw the line in the sand, war is on. You have thrown the ball in his court and be ready because he will test you very soon to see if you’re serious. When he tests you, jump. No yelling, just take the thing away. He will get madder the first time and yell louder so be prepared to up the punishment to five days, not three. He may tell you that you are a mean mother. Oh well- don’t listen. The bottom line is this- he disrespects you because he can. Period. Once you’ve had enough, you’ll find the backbone of steel to get serious with the punishment and he’ll break. He has to because he has to live with you and you keep him alive. Toughen up- you can do this. It will take a few months and then move on to another very specific behavior. He’ll change that a lot faster because he’ll know you mean business. Once you do this, then, you’ll have the relationship with him that you’ve always wanted. Trust me, this works but it isn’t a task for wimps.