Are you dealing with selfish kids? Learn how to discipline an ungrateful child without power struggles, and nurture mutual respect for each other instead.
My husband added an extra treat for our then-toddler: a peanut butter sandwich with his oatmeal. The little guy shoved aside the oatmeal for the sandwich and gobbled it up in record speed.
Once his hands were empty, though, he cried for more. “It’s all gone,” we tried explaining to him.
Nothing seemed to register. He wasn’t thrilled at having eaten a favorite snack—instead, he showed little thanks once the sandwich was gone.
This wasn’t the first time he seemed ungrateful. I had offered to show him clips of a favorite movie on my phone, but it ended with him crying for more, rather than being grateful for having seen the pictures.
We’ve also given him a smoothie only to face more crying when it ran out. And we took him to a playground he loved for several hours just to end with a tantrum when we had to leave.
“Do you think he’s being an ungrateful child?” I asked my husband later that day. “I don’t feel like doing anything fun or giving him special treats if doing so causes him to throw a fit.”
How to handle an ungrateful child
We feel down when kids don’t seem to appreciate our effort and good intentions.
After all, when we treat others, we expect joy, not a fit of tears. But often, kids aren’t being ungrateful so much as they feel disappointed, confused, frustrated, and a slew of other emotions they’re just learning to process.
It’s normal for kids to figure out their likes and dislikes, to voice their opinions (quite vocally, even). But for many parents, it feels like their child is constantly complaining about something.
Perhaps your child complains about having to do chores, never mind not realizing that you do so many of them. She might even find something wrong with the clothes she wears. Or maybe she isn’t thankful for gifts she receives, and can even be downright rude with her comments (“I don’t want this!”).
This kind of behavior is extra frustrating because you’ve been consistent with trying to do all the right things and not spoil her. You don’t give her everything she asks for, and you certainly don’t let her get away with being disrespectful.
(Take a look at the video below, where I share three not-so-obvious signs you might be spoiling your child:)
In fact, you teach her manners, set clear, consistent and reasonable expectations, and remind her she has it good compared to other people.
And yet, she continues to behave like an ungrateful child, unaware of all the things she has to be thankful for.
It’s definitely frustrating spending so much effort trying to be a good mom when it seems your child still isn’t getting it. I didn’t want my kids to grow up “spoiled,” to forget all that they have, or to act ungrateful, even if they may not realize how they’re acting.
So I have several principles in place, all geared to turning this behavior around. Other readers have already found them useful:
“Enjoyed reading your insight! It seems this is a topic that comes up frequently with several of my mom friends. Looking forward to implementing some of these techniques.” -Amy
I hope you can apply these tips moving forward, should you find yourself with an ungrateful child:
1. Acknowledge your child’s motives
It’s easy to overreact to our kids’ behavior, especially when they trigger emotions in us like frustration or embarrassment. Maybe she insulted grandma by tossing a gift to the side instead of gleefully playing with it. Or, like me, your child turning his nose up at dinner feels like a personal attack on all your efforts.
But beneath the behaviors we see on the surface are deeper, valid reasons why she behaved that way. And it’s this behavior we need to acknowledge first, before we jump to overreacting.
Why? By showing empathy—that you understand where she’s coming from—you dissolve any defenses your child may have. She won’t feel attacked herself, and will be more willing to listen and change.
Tossing grandma’s gift to the side isn’t the right behavior, but you also understand that a pack of shirts may not be what’s exciting to her right now. You might even recall a time when you excitedly tore open a gift, only to be disappointed with what you found inside.
Now, you’ve had years of practice to know how to respond politely in these situations. Your child, however, is still working on it (that’s what childhood is for!).
2. Teach your child empathy
Kids aren’t born with the ability to imagine what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes. Far from it: they’re quite egocentric, to the point where toddlers truly believe that everything in sight is theirs to own.
Through childhood, though, they learn that other people have feelings—the very same feelings that they also have. They practice showing empathy, imagining what it’s like if it were them on the receiving end.
The more you can teach empathy, the better able your child will be to change his behavior toward others.
Sure, he might change his behavior if he knows he’ll “get in trouble,” or because he’ll lose a privilege. But we’re raising kids who want to behave, even when no one is looking.
Because if there’s one phrase you can’t say enough of, it’s this: “How would you feel if…”
Get in the habit of asking your child constantly how he would feel if the same thing happened to him. Not so much in a “I told you so” tone of voice, but to truly get him to think deeper about how his actions affect others.
3. Correct and give alternatives
Once you’ve acknowledged your child’s motives, now you can correct the behavior. A phrase I often say in my home is, “We don’t talk to one another that way.” It’s a simple phrase that instills a “code,” or a fact, that your family lives by.
Then, just as importantly, make sure you truly don’t talk to others in that tone. Take a look at how you talk to your child, or your spouse, or perhaps even strangers who irked you. We teach by example much more so than with words we say.
Finally, give alternatives that are more appropriate while still honoring your child’s motives. You can’t force her to love grandma’s gift, but she can certainly give grandma a hug and a “thank you” nonetheless.
Or, let’s say she complains about the clothes she’s wearing. You can tell her, “There’s a better way of saying that. Maybe you can say, ‘I wanted to wear leggings, not a skirt’ (saying this in a politer tone).”
Don’t just expect your child to simply “know” what to do or how to respond. Give her examples to use moving forward, such as what to do instead or how to change her tone of voice.
4. Hold your ground and don’t give in
Few things are more exhausting than dealing with meltdowns and tantrums. Your body tenses and braces for a battle, all while you have other tasks to tend to.
No wonder it’s tempting to simply give in and call it a day.
There are two ways we give in. First, we literally give our kids what they were whining about, from making a grilled cheese sandwich instead of salad to buying the toy they’re throwing a fit over at the store.
Second, we give in by tuning out. We don’t hold our kids accountable to their poor behavior, choosing instead to let it slide time and time again.
Now, there are definitely times when we simply need to throw up our hands to save our sanity. We give our kids the candy bar or let them stay up 30 minutes later because we just don’t have the energy to deal with it any longer.
But those should be rare situations, not the norm.
Instead, focus on holding your ground. Otherwise, your child learns that behaving this way is not only tolerated, but a pretty effective way of getting what she wants.
Giving in reinforces the very behaviors that contribute to the ingratitude you’re trying to remove. If anything, remind yourself that throwing a tantrum doesn’t allow her to learn better ways of communicating what she wants or feels.
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5. Withdraw privileges temporarily
Does your child scoff at the toys she has? One tactic to fix this is to temporarily take them away from her.
Let’s say she complains about her stuffed animals—that she doesn’t have any new ones or that the ones she has aren’t fun anymore.
Let her know that it doesn’t look like she’s ready for the responsibility of taking care of the stuffed animals, or that she hasn’t yet appreciated them the way he should. Then, put the toys away for the rest of the day, letting her know she’ll get them back the next day.
You can also do this regularly—and not even as a response to her behavior—by rotating toys. Store a few of the toys she doesn’t play with regularly. Then every few weeks, bring them out, while storing the toys she had been playing with.
After a while, seeing the same toys can make it easy for her to forget all that she has. But by rotating toys, she’s more likely to appreciate the toys, especially when they seem “new.”
6. Remove the labels you’ve placed on your child
Do you find yourself focusing too much on your child’s ingratitude? It’s understandable, especially when these types of behavior take so much energy or ruin the rest of your day.
But often, those very labels prevent her from changing, no matter how much you want her to. Whether you outright say thing like, “You’re so stubborn!” or even think to yourself, He’s such an ungrateful child, these labels make it that much harder to change.
After all, our life reflects what we focus on. And the more we focus on the negative labels, the more we’re likely to see it. It’s almost like we have our radar tapped into catching any type of ingratitude, oblivious to the many other ways our kids are behaving well.
Instead, start with a clean slate and truly appreciate her for who she is, regardless of her behavior. Better yet, praise her for the times when she is grateful, as praising positive behavior is much more effective than correcting negative ones.
By removing negative labels, you allow your child to truly be the grateful person that she can be.
Dealing with an ungrateful child is exhausting, no doubt. You’re embarrassed with their behavior and afraid you’re raising spoiled, entitled children. Worse, you have no idea how they ended up that way, especially since you’ve done just about everything to avoid this situation.
Sometimes, though, raising a grateful child isn’t just about not giving them a lot of toys or telling them to say “please” and “thank you.”
Instead, focus on teaching empathy, so that your child can better see how her behaviors affect others. At the same time, acknowledge her motives—which often stem from valid reasons—so that she feels heard and understood.
Then, give her different ways to communicate or behave so she can say what she feels without being an ungrateful child. If needed, withdraw her privileges temporarily so she can understand the responsibility and expectations of what it means to have those items or experiences.
Hold your ground as well, since giving in—especially to tantrums and meltdowns—doesn’t give her the chance to learn from these moments. And above all, remove any negative labels, whether said out loud or in your mind, that you have of her behavior.
All kids will show ingratitude from time to time, whether they mean to or not. But by following these principles, you can steer your child toward the kind of behavior you want to see.
Or at the very least, get them to be grateful for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Get more tips:
- 5 Unusual Ways to Deal with a Defiant 3 Year Old
- Top 7 Tips to Keep Your Sanity as a Mom
- 8 Warning Signs You Need to Be a More Patient Mom
- How to Teach Your Kids to Make Good Choices
- Why You Should Model the Behavior You Want to See in Your Child
Tell me in the comments: do you think you’re raising an ungrateful child? What are your biggest struggles with curbing the behavior of an ungrateful child?
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