My 9-Year-Old has a Sassy, Bad Attitude!

Filed under: Expert Advice: Big Kids, Social & Emotional Growth: Tweens, Expert Advice: Tweens

Dear AdviceMama,

My 9-year-old daughter is very sassy. She isn't disrespectful in what she says; it's the tone and attitude she uses when she says it. If I ask her to pick up her shoes, her reply is "Allllrrriight" instead of "All right!" I get so many compliments from outsiders of how she has great manners, and is so respectful and helpful. What can I do? Everyone tells me it's the age.

Sassy's Mom

Dear Sassy's Mom,

Isn't it strange how children seem to operate from two different rule books? One tells them how to behave when they're out in public, and the other lets them know what they can get away with at home.

Your question will resonate with millions of parents who often find themselves listening in disbelief as their teacher goes on and on about how cooperative their child is, and what a pleasure he or she is to have around. "Are you sure you're talking about my child?" they ask, convinced that the little darling being described bears no resemblance to the one who lives under their roof.

When children are at home their behavior can be dramatically different than it is when they are elsewhere. The region of the brain that manages inhibitions and impulse control (the pre-frontal cortex) is "on duty" when a child is out and about; mild anxiety about upsetting other adults makes them more vigilant about what they do or say.

But when that same child is home and knows he or she is safe, you might say that the instinct to carefully govern what they do or say is "off duty."

This is not to say that children should be permitted to speak rudely or behave inappropriately when they're home. It's just a way of helping you understand why your daughter may be sloppier with her manners when she is with you.

Another element to consider is the way you react to her sassiness. I often say that I'm a big fan of the "arched eyebrow." Rather than engaging in lectures about why she shouldn't speak to you a certain way, simply look at her with an eyebrow raised, and don't say a word. Let her know by the look on your face that she's crossed a line, and don't encourage her pre-adolescent "attitude" by responding with drama and fanfare.

Finally, look at the quality of connection between the two of you. While it's true that children do test the waters and experiment with being edgier as they move toward adolescence, when they feel seen, cherished and enjoyed by their caregivers, they are less comfortable being disrespectful toward them.

Avoid taking your daughter's behavior too seriously -- or too personally. All children test their parents to see where the line is. Keep your connection strong, don't react in a way that fuels her sassy attitude, and things will get better.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.