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How to Prevent Kids from Sulking

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

When kids sulk, it can be a real trigger for parents. The fear is that we are raising a brat and the common belief is that kids should 'suck it up' when they don't get their own way and get on with it. Parents are told to 'just ignore' them when they are sulking so they learn that sulking doesn't get them attention, or what they want and then they will stop doing it. The problem is that when we leave children alone with their feelings, they don't learn healthy ways to manage or express them.

"Young children can't get to emotional maturity without a guide." - Dr Deborah MacNamara

If we send our child away when they are displaying a behaviour or emotion that we don't like, it teaches them that some parts of them are unacceptable, and it forces them to suppress their feelings rather than to process them. Emotional suppression doesn't get rid of emotions, it just places them outside of conscious control where they lay buried in the body, ready to burst out later as misbehaviour or aggression, which is likely to be aimed towards another child or a pet. Suppressed feelings can also lead to anxiety and depression.

So, what should we do when our child is sulking? Here are some ways we can help our child that will reduce the likelihood that they will even sulk in the first place, plus help them to develop emotional intelligence.

#1- Make them feel Heard and Understood

Sulking is usually a sign that we haven't made our child feel heard. When children feel heard and understood, they are much more likely to accept our 'no' and much less likely to sulk. When we let a child know that it is OK for them to want something, even as we say 'no' to that thing, we make them feel seen and understood. For example in a shop:

Child (holding up a toy) Can I have this?

Parent Oh wow, that looks cool! We're not buying anything today but I can see why you want that.

Child I really want it! please can I have it?

Parent You really wish I would say yes, I know. It's not part of our plan for today, but I can put it on your wish list for your birthday.

If the parent shames their child by saying; "I said no and I mean no; all the toys you have at home that you never play with, you're just greedy." They are much more likely to sulk and feel like a terrible person for wanting something.

#2 -Acknowledge and Normalise their Feelings

If your child starts to protest and get angry with you, or starts to sulk, acknowledge how they feel;

"You really like this toy, and you are so upset that I said no. I understand, I feel sad when I can't get the things I want too."

I have to say though, that putting it on their wish list (I have a list on my phone for each of my children) usually works a treat; but if not then hold your 'no', whilst continuing to empathise with how much they want it. "I'm not going to change my mind, I see how much you wish I would. I'm sorry this is so disappointing."

If they begin to cry, welcome their tears. They are not trying to manipulate you, they are crying tears of futility and it means that they are giving up the fight, accepting your 'no' and letting all their feelings out. You can say "It's OK to be upset, would you like a hug?" Let them cry for as long as they need to, they won't cry forever. After they have finished crying, they will most likely feel much better and much less bothered about the toy - maybe a good cry in your arms was all they needed all along.

Is it OK to Change your Mind?

It is a good idea not to rush to say 'no' to our child unless we really mean 'no'. However, if you're like me, occasionally you say 'no' and then realise that you could have said yes. If this happens, it is OK to change your mind, but be clear that it is your decision and not down to your child's upset. For example, you could say something like; "Actually, I've thought about it and I have decided that we should get that toy. You made some good points about why we should get it, and I think you will have fun with it in the garden over the school holidays."

If on the other hand, we change our mind only because our child gets emotional. For example; "Oh sweetie please don't cry, don't be sad, OK I will get it for you?" Or;"Fine! I'll go over our budget and buy it, are you happy now?" We teach our child that we can't bare their upset feelings. Our child learns that sad feelings are an emergency and must be avoided at all costs (a recipe for depression). It also teaches them that they are in charge and if they make enough fuss, you will get them what they want. This is actually frightening for a child.

Is it OK to Distract them?

If your child is really young and they can be easily distracted and refocused onto something else, then this is OK to distract them sometimes if you don't have time for the potential meltdown. However, don't make distraction your go to approach because it doesn't teach children how to manage and understand their feelings. When we show children that we can handle all their feelings without distracting them, they learn that their feelings are not an emergency, and they begin to learn how to understand and manage them. This is how children develop emotional intelligence.

"Children learn that although they can't always get what they want, they get something even better; a mum or a dad who always understands." - Dr. Laura Markham.

#3 - Don't Take it Personally

Your child's behaviour is not a reflection of you as a parent. It reflects their emotional state and level of development. It is important not to take what they say personally, so that you can remain the leader and not let your reaction to their feelings get in the way of what they are trying to express. Children's brains are still very immature and underdeveloped, so when they are upset about something they often don't express it in a respectful way. For example, they don't say; " I'm feeling sad and angry that you won't let Jimmy come over to play today." They say, "I hate you; you are the worst!" If we then say; "How dare you speak to me that way!" we miss an opportunity to teach them about their feelings and make it all about us. If instead we don't take it personally and say, "Oh my goodness, you must be so angry to say that to me." And then listen, they will feel understood and calm down much faster. Later when things are calmer you can talk to them about what they can say instead of 'I hate you' the next time they are angry with you.

#4 - Take care of yourself

Lastly although probably most importantly, take care of you. If you're run down, burnout and putting everyone else's needs before your own, it is impossible to show up as the emotionally generous parent you want to be. Try to check in with yourself regularly throughout your day to see how you are feeling and what you need and try to find a way to give that to yourself. Notice what thoughts are running through your head and practice talking to yourself kindly. If you lose it with your child (everyone does sometimes), instead of beating yourself up, give yourself compassion and get curious about how you can get yourself more support.

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