Are you dealing with selfish kids? Learn how to discipline an ungrateful child without power struggles, and nurture respect instead.
My husband added an extra treat for our 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 explained.
But nothing seemed to register. He wasn’t thrilled at having eaten a favorite snack—instead, he showed little thanks once it was gone.
This wasn’t the first time he seemed ungrateful. I had offered to show him a favorite movie, but it ended with him crying for more, rather than showing gratefulness for having seen it.
We’ve also given him a smoothie, only to face more crying when it ran out. And we took him to a playground for several hours just to end with a temper 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 anymore if he throws a fit when it ends.”
How to handle an ungrateful child
It’s normal to feel down when your child doesn’t appreciate your effort and good intentions. After all, you’re expecting joy, not a fit of tears.
But she’s likely not being ungrateful so much as feeling disappointment, confusion, or frustration. She’s still figuring out her likes and dislikes and voicing her opinions (quite vocally, even).
But sometimes, it can feel like she’s constantly complaining about something.
Perhaps she complains about doing chores (never mind that you do most of them) or finds something wrong with the clothes she wears. She isn’t thankful for birthday 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 to avoid spoiling her. You don’t give her everything she asks for, and you certainly don’t let her get away with being disrespectful.
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 she still isn’t getting it.
I didn’t want my kids to grow up “spoiled,” to forget all that they have, or to have a lack of gratitude, even if they may not realize how they’re acting. So, I implemented several tips, 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. Hold your ground
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 give in to your child and call it a day.
There are two ways we give in.
- Indulging our kids what they were whining about, from making a PB&J instead of salad to buying the new toy they’re throwing a fit about at the store.
- Tuning out. We don’t hold them accountable to their poor behavior, choosing instead to let it slide time and time again.
Now, there are definitely times when we need to throw up our hands to save our sanity. We give 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.
2. Acknowledge your child’s motives
It’s easy to overreact to your child’s behavior when it triggers frustration or embarrassment. Maybe she insulted grandma by tossing a gift to the side, or refused to eat the dinner you prepared.
But beneath the behavior is a deeper, valid emotion that let her to behave that way. And it’s this behavior you need to acknowledge first.
By showing empathy, you dissolve any defenses she may have. She won’t feel attacked, 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 exciting to her right now. You might even recall a time when you tore open a gift, only to be disappointed with what you found inside.
Except you’ve had years of practice to respond politely in these situations. Your child, however, is still working on it (that’s what childhood is for!).
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3. 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 they 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 her behavior toward others.
Sure, she might change her behavior if she knows she’ll “get in trouble,” or because she’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 it feel if…”
Get in the habit of asking her constantly how she would feel if the same thing happened to her. Not so much in an “I told you so” tone of voice, but to get her to think deeper about how her actions affect others.
4. 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” that your family lives by.
Then, make sure you don’t talk to others in that tone on a regular basis. Take a look at how you talk to him, your other family members, or even strangers who irked you. We teach by example more so than with words we say.
Finally, give alternatives that are more appropriate while still honoring his motives. You can’t force him to love grandma’s gift, but he can certainly give grandma a hug and a “thank you” for her generosity.
Or, let’s say he complains about the clothes he’s wearing. You can tell him, “There’s a better way of saying that. Maybe you can say, ‘I wanted to wear pants, not shorts’.”
Don’t just expect him to “know” what to do or how to respond. Give examples to use moving forward, like what to do or how to change his tone of voice.
5. Withdraw privileges temporarily
Does your child scoff at the toys she has and behave a sense of entitlement? One tactic to encourage a sense of gratitude 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. And that if she continues to not care for them, that you’ll put them away for the rest of the day (and that she’ll get them back the next day).
You can also do this regularly—and not only as a response to her behavior—by rotating toys. Store a few of the toys she doesn’t play with all the time. 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 them, 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 ungratefulness? It’s understandable, especially when these types of behavior take so much energy or ruin the rest of your day.
But those very labels prevent him from changing, no matter how much you want him 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 our outlook. And the more we focus our perspective on the negative labels, the more we’re likely to see them. It’s almost like we have our radar tapped into catching ingratitude, oblivious to the many ways our kids are behaving well.
Instead, start with a clean slate and appreciate him for who he is, regardless of his behavior. Better yet, praise him for good behavior and when he does show appreciation, as this is more effective than correcting negative ones.
By removing negative labels, you allow him to be the grateful person that he can be.
Dealing with ungrateful attitude is exhausting, no doubt. You’re embarrassed with her behavior and afraid you’re raising a spoiled child. Worse, you have no idea how she ended up that way, especially since you’ve done just about everything to avoid this situation.
Sometimes, though, raising a grateful child isn’t only about not giving them a lot of toys or telling them to say “please” and “thank you.”
Instead, focus on teaching empathy, so that she can better see how her behaviors affect others. Acknowledge her motives—which often stem from valid, common reasons—so that she feels heard and understood.
Then, offer different ways to communicate or behave so she can say what she feels in a more appropriate way. Withdraw privileges so she understands the responsibilities and expectations of having them.
Hold your ground, since giving in—especially to tantrums and meltdowns—doesn’t give her the chance to learn from these moments. And remove negative labels, whether said out loud or in your mind, that you have of her behavior.
All kids will show ungrateful behavior 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 her 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
- Children’s Books about Making the World a Better Place
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