Breaking the “cranky kid” cycle

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Paying attention to your own stress level and knowing when to disengage, rather than escalate an argument, is an important step in preserving your rightful role as beneficent dictator in the household hierarchy. (AP Photo)

by Matthew Prowler, M.D.

Do cranky kids make cranky parents? The coming of fall and the return to school can mark a time of relief for some parents – less time is spent thinking about what your child is going to do all day. But for others, this season provides a new (or all-too-familiar) host of stresses. Getting your child up and dressed, fed, out the door, and to sleep on-time can be anywhere from an annoying challenge to an all-out daily battle. 

Does your child argue with you constantly, throw temper tantrums or actively defy you on a regular basis?

If so, you and your child are not alone. Studies estimate that 10 percent of children display these behaviors, which, when seen together, are characterized as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or ODD.

But the diagnosis itself is not so helpful when your child is freaking out every day. So what can you do to help - without become a cranky parent yourself and unwittingly fueling the behavior you’re trying so hard to fix?

  • Pay attention to context. When does this behavior occur and what are the specific triggers for your child? For example, does it happen only at home, or only when his sibling is around? Many children have particular difficulty at times of transition, such as getting out the door to school or moving from one activity to another. The child may have a rigid or inflexible way of thinking and need help anticipating a changing routine.
  • Control your own emotions. Despite their best intentions, parents often get upset and emotional with their school-age children and start arguing, yelling, or fighting themselves. At this point, you have lost your parental authority.  Paying attention to your own stress level and knowing when to disengage, rather than escalate an argument, is an important step in preserving your rightful role as beneficent dictator in the household hierarchy.
  • Pick your battles. Some battles are worth having, even if you know they are going to be bad.  Some are better left alone. Starting to separate these out is crucial. Two helpful books to aid parents in this are 1, 2, 3 Magic by Thomas Phelan, Ph.D. and The Explosive Child by Ross Greene, PhD. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Getting input from others, such as your son or daughter’s teachers, can be helpful in understanding your child’s behavioral patterns. And if you have changed your parenting style and your child or your relationship is not improving, it could be worth visiting a mental health professional, such as a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. Extremely violent behavior or mood, anxiety or inattention symptoms are red flags that something else may be going on and further evaluation is warranted.

 Matthew Prowler, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

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