Complaints and Sandbags

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I've been reading with interest your website and hope you can help me. We are a family of 4, Mom Dad and 2 boys ages 7 and 10. My 10-year-old is the one I am having problems with. Everything seems to be chore for him. For instance if I ask him to put something somewhere for me he says he didn't put it there in the first place however if I ask his brother to do the same thing he just asks me where would I like him to put it. He is a clever boy with no learning problems in school he is constantly in the top 5, however he constantly complains about the amount of work he has to do and from the moment I collect him from school he just gives out about the homework and the teacher. I have tried to be positive towards him and have joked about the car being a complaint "free zone". I have spoken to his teacher and she says she has to ask him to do things 3 or 4 times before he does it. We also have this problem first thing in the morning. He takes ages over his breakfast and has to be hurried along, I have to constantly repeat requests to do his teeth, put his lunch his school bag etc. I have even got the family up earlier in the morning to give him more time. By the time he gets to school I feel drained. The same thing happens at bedtime. He goes up and reads until I call for his light to be switched off - come up to tuck him in - all very happy and loving but we have several visits down the stairs with me sending him back up each time by which time I'm angry at him and stressed. I have explained to him that night time is now adult time and that Mom and Dad need time together but to no avail. I've tried to be consistent with him and have sat him down to discuss all these issues but to know avail - Please help. 


I am one of the Positive Discipline associates, a co-author of several of the Positive Discipline books, and a licensed marriage and family therapist. I work with 10-year-old boys pretty frequently, and had one of my own. He's now 17, and we both seem to have survived the earlier years pretty well: my guess is that you and your son will, too. 

Your son has figured out a sure-fire (although mistaken) way to get the sense of belonging and significance that all children need. His younger brother has the role of "good, helpful kid" all sewed up, so your 10-year-old has made a subconscious decision to be "the best at being grumpy." Actually, he sounds discouraged to me, and I am curious about why. Once common reason is that children are good perceivers but poor interpreters (as Dreikurs used to say). It could be that his interpretation is that you love his younger brother more than him. That is very discouraging. (Remember that what children believe is true has nothing to do with the truth, however their behavior is based on what they believe.) When they believe they don't belong and are not significant they often choose one of the mistaken goals (undue attention, misguided power, revenge, or giving up) as a mistaken way to find the belonging and significance they need. (We have full chapters to help parents understand this in all of our books.)

You sound irritated and annoyed by his complaining, dragging his feet about morning and evening routines, and lack of motivation about school work, which is a good clue (your feelings) that his behavior is designed to get undue attention. All children need attention; when they don't believe they can get it in positive ways, they will settle for negative attention (a mistaken way to seek belonging and significance). 

Changing your relationship with your eldest son will take some time and patience, but it certainly is possible. You and your husband can sit down together and think about ways you can increase your son's sense of belonging in the family. What are his special gifts and strengths? Does anyone notice when he does things right? Do you and his dad spend "special time"--one-on-one time just hanging out or working together--with him? Is he able to be involved in sports, art, or other outside activities that might increase his sense of confidence and competence? 

Invite your son to help you create simple routines for morning and evening. Let him make charts of the routines so he has ownership. Then the routine chart becomes the boss. You can simply ask, "What is next on your routine chart?" It is empowering when he is invited to think about what needs to be done rather than feeling resistant when being TOLD what needs to be done. Offer him choices at other times about what will happen: for instance, you may say, "We will leave for school in 15 minutes; you can either finish your breakfast now, or I guess your next meal will be lunch. You decide." Be sure you are comfortable with all of the choices you give him, and can follow through with kindness and firmness. Lectures and nagging rarely make anything better, so remain calm, smile, and follow through. 

It may help to begin having family meetings, to offer appreciation to each member of the family, and to involve everyone in solving problems together—a very encouraging and empowering way to approach family life. You can find more information on family meetings in any of the Positive Discipline books.

Above all, listen to your son's behavior as well as his words, and see if you can tell what he is deciding about himself, you, and life in your family. Approach him with empathy and curiosity, and listen calmly to whatever he needs to tell you. You can accept his feelings and still work together on changing his behavior. If things don't improve, it might help to find a skilled family therapist to help you learn to understand each other better. 

Hang in there, and best to you and your family-- 

Cheryl Erwin, MA, MFT, CPDA 

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