Is Your Child a Master of Sulking?
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
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You know how this goes. You do something or offer something and your child frowns. He crosses his arms and ducks his head. He glares at you. He pouts. Maybe he lets a tear slide down his cheek.
“Oh! We don’t have any macaroni and cheese. We’re all out!” you say. Your child looks at you with angry eyes.
You’re surprised. You had no idea he would act this way. You want to understand, to make things better. But you can’t make things better. Your child has decided to make you pay.
It’s amazing, when you think about it, the young age at which children learn to sulk. Most are masters by age four or even younger. Many continue to send you on a guilt trip throughout their childhoods and into their teens. There seems to be nothing you can do about it.
You can apologize. “I’m sorry. I thought we had some mac-n-cheese but we must’ve eaten it.” Usually this falls on deaf ears. An apology only confirms your child in the belief that you have failed miserably as a parent. Making you feel badly is exactly what your child had in mind. An apology sometimes works but most likely won’t.
You can offer alternatives. “How about some spaghetti? You like spaghetti.” A child may accept an alternative but not instead of what she originally wanted. She still wants what you didn’t have and she is still holding you accountable for that. Offering a substitute only means you’ll pay twice, for the substitution and for whatever was wanted in the first place.
You can try to cheer your child up. “Oh, come on! Mac-n-cheese has holes in it!!!” But this never works. Your child doesn’t want to be made happier; he’s happy enough putting you through your paces. Your child sees your efforts at being cheerful as a denial of the seriousness of your crime. He will sulk harder, since you obviously don’t understand!
You can growl, telling your child to snap out of it, or “straighten up and fly right,” as my father used to say. This doesn’t work very well. From the child’s perspective she’s being punished now for exposing the truth. You have failed but she’s being yelled at for it. Unfair!
The only technique that works is refusing to play your part. Be pleasant but ignore the sulk. “Oh. We don’t have any macaroni and cheese. We’re all out. Is there anything you’d like instead? No? Okay. Well, tell me if you change your mind.” And then go about your business.
Sulking is a performance. It has to have an audience. No audience, no show.
When your child does come around, saying maybe, “If I can’t have macaroni and cheese, can I have a peanut butter sandwich?” answer as if no sulking has happened. Pick up where you left off, not where the sulking began. This means you shouldn’t say anything about the sulking. Don’t say, “That’s better!” or “I’m glad you’ve decided to be nice now” or anything like that. Let the sulking be something that evaporated.
But if your child says instead, “If I can’t have macaroni and cheese, can I have some candy?” just smile and shake your head. Suggesting an alternative your child knows you won’t agree to is the start of another sulk-session.
Don’t play along!
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.