When children are upset and unsettled, they need empathy and connection before solutions or suggestions. 

They need to get their feelings out and to see that we’re noticing and caring about those feelings.  From the smallest to the biggest problems, they need to see that we care before they can open to our suggestions, our solutions and our advice.  They don’t want to know what we think, they do want to know that we care.  They need gentle parenting.

Just get dressed!  Just brush your teeth!  Just do your chores!  How hard can it be!!  

When power struggles ensue with your child whether it relates to getting dressed, washing teeth, eating their food, doing chores, whose turn it is to feed the cat; a lot of upset and time can usually be saved if the parent can stop, pause, breathe, see and relate to their child’s upset grumpy feelings, then show their child in one way or another that they can see and really care that their child is finding things hard. A deep sympathetic breath. A softened smile, an affectionate touch, an act of coming down to your child’s level, an offer of a hug, words of care “oh my girl, you’re not happy are you, I care, I’m looking after you, come here.”

When stress builds up and the warm connection breaks down, children can find even the simplest tasks to be too difficult.

How easily things can escalate when we react with annoyance to our child’s upsets.

 And yet how hard it can be to connect from the heart when a parent is in the midst of trying to keep up with an endless list of jobs to be done. Yet when a child doesn’t gain the comfort that they need, nothing else in their world is going to be okay until they do. Children can’t really cope with our reasoning with them when they’re upset. When upset, they feel emotionally fragile, sensitive and desperately need our sweetness and care. They need to be heard and feel cared for.

When children blurt out their annoyance, their complaints, their frustrations, their disappointments; for most parents, it’s much more natural to want to react and to reason with their child, to help them see a different angle, perhaps a more reasonable or “positive” perspective.

Power struggles happen when parent and child keep reiterating their perspective, but neither is willing to compromise,

to meet in the middle or acknowledge the other’s perspective. Parents keep reiterating what needs to be done, or might be offering a good solution to their problems, but forget that the issue isn’t just about the information “what’s to be done or not done”, it’s become an emotional issue. In power struggles, the child tends to feel shut down and given the message that they shouldn’t feel like they do **simply because of the lack of empathy**.

The child’s desperate needs to have their feelings validated

and their need to safely show even MORE of their feelings are not met and now they’re even more frustrated, so they may well retort “You NEVER listen to me!”. The parent may snap back “how DARE you say that!”, the child shouts “You just don’t care!!”. The child’s left feeling alone with their big emotions and overwhelmed. The parent is left feeling bewildered at their child’s reactions. What to do?

Whose going to rise above the conflict or power struggle? It’s all too easy to escalate our child’s upset even when our intentions are to help and support. Yet resolution is always possible.

When conflicts erupt, acknowledging some of the feelings that have surfaced instead of applying pressure on their child to just do what they should do is generally a more effective approach.

It takes inner strength and self-discipline for a parent to resist the urge to reason or argue despite it escalating the upset or resistance. But the more a parent practices controlling their urge to defend, control, reason or justify but moves instead towards the intention to truly listen, truly aim to understand (even when they disagree with their child’s perspective or wants in that moment), this can start to bring back that important parent child connection and perhaps provide a much needed safe outlet for their child’s upset grumpy feelings.  Grumpy resistant children often just need to have a big cry or a big vent and get it all out of their system.

Our children are much more motivated to cooperate and to respect and follow our guidance when the connection is strong again and when their feelings have been seen, heard and respected.

Resolving differences becomes easier when we can own our reactions, slow down, consciously slow down our breathing and then show genuine care in one way or another, even when setting limits to very out of balance behaviour.

When we can connect with that intention to listen, empathize and resolve,

 we’re more likely to then remember to slow down, breathe and become honestly aware of our feelings, body language and tone of voice. We may identify that we’ve reacted from feelings of powerlessness and anger.

When conflicts erupt, most of us, myself included, find it all too easy to feel defensive,

we may feel unfairly criticized by our child, we may have the urge to get them to see our point of view, but an upset child needs their parent to be the big person, to be the adult and put aside (at least temporarily) our need to be heard and understood.

When our child is upset, they’re likely to be trying to communicate; “Mum/Dad I can’t cope with you not coping with my feelings. I need you to become calm, to care for me and see that I’m doing my best. I’m really hurting, please show me what I CAN do with all this anger, please listen and show me that my feelings are understandable.”

It’s ok and normal to have difficult moments.

In situations like this it can help when we can hold the sense that we’re doing our best, our child is doing their best, it’s ok that either or both of parent and child are upset, it’s just a moment in time, be it a tough moment, you’ll get through it and can learn from it. When things are calm again, there will be more space for talking, listening, learning and gaining insights.

What great modelling! 

Showing your child that you have the capacity to return back to a more calm and caring state after a conflict has been sparked between you, will give them hope, inspiration and great modelling that it’s possible to stay in the relationship when conflicts arise. You’re empowering them to be the adolescent, then adult, who can keep the lines of communication open even when conflicts arise. ~ Genevieve

Genevieve Simperingham is a Psychosynthesis Counsellor, a Parenting Instructor and coach, public speaker, human rights advocate, writer and the founder of The Peaceful Parent Institute.  Check out her articles, Peaceful Parenting eCourses, forums and one-year Peaceful Parenting Instructor Training through this website or join over 90,000 followers on her Facebook page The Way of the Peaceful Parent.
14 Comments
  1. Susie Allen 10 years ago

    Me and my partner have just started to put some of this into play with our 4 year old little boy, we got him when he was 14 months old from the state and he had seen and been through a lot, he can be very rude and disreptful to us, also his listening skills aren’t great, but we have realized our delivery isn’t great eather, so we are putting in a valued effort to try to be more calm with him and we have noticed when we are calm he is calm. Our children our a reflection of us rings so true here. Trying to work on this every day, Good read today thanks.

    • Genevieve Simperingham 10 years ago

      Your little boy is very blessed Susie to have you guys as parents. It is a LOT of work, takes the patience of the saint, but oh so so worth it. There’s another post by an adoptive mother called something like “from hitting and biting to hugs and kisses” which you might enjoy reading also.

  2. keystone river run 10 years ago

    Hi mates, its enormous piece of writing concerning teachingand completely explained, keep it up all the time.

  3. Yisset 9 years ago

    Very good article. Iam dealing with those conflicts with my my 5 years old , who is the sweetest boy ever but now that he started kindergarten , he is not being so happy of getting up in the morning and doing the routine duties…trying to get to the origin of his grumpiness…

    • Yes Yisset, it’s hard when they themselves can’t identify what or why they’re feeling. Yet it always comes through in their behaviour, tone of voice and body language. Another article that might help at the moment is “helping our child adapt to change”, in it I explain how normal it is for children to be all grumpy and out of balance when going through big changes and how we can help them in the adjustment. It might be particularly important to make time to really connect when he comes home from kindy, maybe some giggles together or snuggling up with some books, or better still let him take the lead. This can really help a child feel all grounded and settled again. I’m glad you stumbled across the article at this time. It’s all too easy to get into power struggles with a kid at these times when what they need is the increased connection, reassurances and the normal routines.

  4. Nicole 8 years ago

    My daughter seems to be always grumpy! She very quickly becomes angry and has a hard time getting along with other sometimes, not always, but is usually resistant to new people. Is this a phase? How to handle this? I practice gentle parenting but I am at a loss and frustrated with her endless grumpy behavior. Please help. Thank you!

    • Hi Nicole, perhaps contact me about making an appointment to talk it through. Also, have a look at my child’s feelings and needs chart here on my website and see if that brings any insight. Stress and frustrations can develop in so many ways, and children need help resolving any backlog of frustrations that build up. Without knowing her age, or the context, or how often or how long she has been easily overwhelmed, it’s hard to answer, but I can hear that you’re working hard to figure out what’s going on for her and how you can help her.

  5. KW 6 years ago

    My 4 1/2 year old son has been very grumpy and negative this past year. He is particularly grumpy around friends or other kids but seems to be fine when it is just his immediate family. It seems that he struggles when something doesn’t go his way or when the other kids don’t do exactly what he wants. He can be bossy and easily upset if they don’t follow his lead. He also will complain that they are too loud if he has a hard time getting a word in edgewise. Now he is saying he doesn’t want to go to school or play with any friends. I’m tired of his negativity and have been trying on relaying/acknowledging his feelings and talking to him about his frustrations. I have also been trying to talk positively during situations as well.

    • Author

      KW, how great that you’ve been working hard to talk positively with him and talking with his about his feelings and frustrations. This kind of patient compassionate communication helps a child start to themselves explore what they might be feeling and start to gain more vocabulary for expressing those feelings. I hear how stressful it is for you that he struggles in his play with other kids, it sounds like it’s stressful for him as well. Maybe instead of viewing that he’s being negative, try to reframe it as him showing you his stress and frustrations, hence giving you the opportunity to help him. If he struggles with the group situation with other children, maybe bring the focus to play dates with one other child where you’re very available to patiently mediate their differences. There’s lots of great tips for mediating children’s conflicts in the articles, which all help a child get better themselves at problem solving with other children and expressing their feelings with more vocabulary and confidence.

      Have you watched the videos in our free Discipline without punishment video series? There’s lots of tips in them that would probably help a lot.

      To support your hard work in talking positively with him, this article might also be supportive; active listening

      Also, this one around helping him in these situations with other kids that he finds stressful. They are BIG skills for young children to learn. You can assume he’s doing his best and wanting to be happy and enjoy social situation, but needs a lot of your help and support along the way. The peaceful parenting approach to kids conflicts.

  6. KL 1 year ago

    My 8 years old seems to be grumpy a lot, on a daily basis. He is very smart and happy boy, but he gets grumpy for no reasons. We do positive parenting, there is no hitting, we spend lots of time with our children and he is very happy, active and smart. There is no real triggers, he just gets grumpy suddenly and it can “ruin” whatever activity the family is doing. My husband seems to think that all January babies are grumpy as most of his cousins are from January, but it can not be just the sign. We praise him for doing great, we spend lots of time with him, playing, there are no problems in the family or school, he is happy, but not spoiled and appreciates gifts and trips and he is very loving, but his grumpiness is really hard to deal with. Your help would be greatly appreciated.

    • Author

      Hi there, it sounds like you’re a very committed and caring parent. And great that your boy is overall a happy and engaged child. He’s still very young and early days in terms of developing his emotional intelligence. I would encourage you to adopt the view that when he’s grumpy it’s an opportunity to help him to connect with his emotions and practice identifying and naming his feelings, practice expressing his feelings and needs. How you respond will determine whether he can have a positive attitude towards himself when he’s feeling uncomfortable feelings, or whether he develops inner conflict with his feelings. For the child to accept that it’s ok that they’re feeling what they’re feeling, they need to gain that warm response from their parent.

      Did the article help you? It’s true that when he’s feeling bad, he ideally needs for you to become present with him in a way that’s calm and inviting. If you show care and concern for his feelings, he will be in a better position to make sense of his feelings which can lead to him better identifying what he needs and learning to express those needs in healthy ways. For instance, this kind of warm responsive approach can result in the child being more likely to express “I’m really worried about the test in school tomorrow”, or “I think I’m still annoyed at my friend for not wanting to play with me today”, or “I get jealous when you’re spending so much time with ….. “. This is fantastic emotional intelligence. But when the child gets the message from their parent that they shouldn’t be grumpy, or that there’s no valid reason for them to be grumpy, they are more likely to feel annoyed or angry at themselves when they feel grumpy, more likely to feel shame, more likely to project their feelings outwards and becoming blaming or reactive towards others.

      Has this resonated at all? Or not?

      active listening

      • Kate 1 year ago

        Thank you for your response. I really appreciate it, it’s so hard to explain, we do positive parenting and we tell him that it is ok to be angry or upset sometimes and we help him work with his feelings, but it seems that he is grumpy a lot and only at home. We asked already before and never any issues at school or activities, but at home anytime he just gets so negative. Sometimes I feel like we have to walk on glass at home to ensure that we do not say anything to trigger his grumpiness, but I feel it’s getting out of control and we really do not yell and try always to be extra nice just to ensure that we do not upset him. I tell him for example “Darling, run and brush your hair so we can go” and one day he jumps from joy and runs to the bathroom and does it and another day he gets so upset with exact same question. When we do something special.. for example say we let’s go for Sushi, which is his favorite, he would say.. “Oh man… why not kebab?”, it seems that he can find something negative in anything. We are both very committed parents and we hope to find a solution, I wish I could record it, but there is not way to schedule it so I can record. It’s so hard to explain honestly, he is ok outside, seems to be “grumpy” only with parents. I do understand that it is normal for children to be angry and upset, but that is definitely a different case. Any further guidance would be appreciated. Thank you very much. Desperate Mom

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