Among the top goals of any parent is to raise a child who's compassionate and kind, with polite and good-natured being bonuses. Sometimes, though — despite your best efforts — your kid ends up a bit of a spoiled brat, and you find yourself in the middle of a parental existential crisis wondering where it all went wrong. But don't spiral into a full-on panic imagining your once-sweet baby as a menace to society who makes life hellish for everyone in their orbit (at least not yet). All children exhibit bratty behavior from time to time, as child, adolescent, and adult psychologist Aaron Montgomery, Psy.D tells Scary Mommy. Still, while every kid will throw a tantrum or two, there are some red flags you've got a bona fide brat on your hands.
Fear not, because with plenty of love and patience, you can get your kiddo back on the right track, says Montgomery. "Uncooperative behavior that is transient and responsive to intervention from adults (i.e., parents and teachers) may be considered manageable and more normative," notes Montgomery. "It is developmentally appropriate for children to test limits and display emotional dysregulation at times when frustrated."
Essentially, if your kid's bratty moments are in the mix with predominantly sweet and well-meaning behavior, you likely have very little to worry about.
Signs of a Bratty Child
That said, Montgomery notes a few telltale signs things are in the red on the brat scale.
"Uncooperative behavior that is persistent across settings and relationships, unresponsive to interventions from adults, and leads to impairment in academic or social functioning may indicate a more serious problem. For example, you may need help from a professional if your child's uncooperative behavior is associated with falling behind in school or prevents them from establishing and maintaining relationships with peers."
If your child is persistently acting out with one person or group of people (say, in school or around specific family members) — and it doesn't ease either on its own with time or by you intervening — that could signal something deeper is going on with your little one.
"Emotional dysregulation that is intense and prolonged may indicate a more serious behavioral issue," says Montgomery. "For example, a child who displays frequent and intense tantrums and is unable to self-soothe after a brief period of time, is unable to recover with support from an adult, or leads to harmful aggressive behavior toward other children or adults should raise concern and may require consultation with a professional."
What to Do if You're Raising a Brat
Before checking in with a doctor, social worker, or psychologist specializing in behavioral health, it might be worth taking stock of things to see whether or not you can handle the bratty behavior on your own or if professional assistance is genuinely needed. A great place to start is looking inward at your own behavior, especially around your child.
"It is very important for parents to model cooperative behavior for their children," says Montgomery. "Modeling cooperative, respectful, and empathic behavior in your daily activities may be the best way to increase the likelihood that your child will demonstrate these as well. Modeling polite speech with 'please' and 'thank you' is also important. Reinforcing your child's use of this behavior with verbal praise, excitement, and hugs or high fives is helpful."
If it is something you want to address with your kid directly, Montgomery offers some key advice that kids will more easily understand and relate to. "Provide your child with brief, simple, and straightforward messages about your expectations," he says. "Make sure your expectations are developmentally appropriate. Deliver clear and emotionally neutral feedback about your child's behavior when it is uncooperative. Avoid lengthy communication that is emotionally charged, particularly when you are frustrated."
When Bratty Behavior Becomes Truly Problematic
There's a distinct difference between bratty behavior and dangerous behavior. While you can typically ignore a minor tantrum or attention-seeking display, you should address physical violence or aggression without delay, says Montgomery. "Behavior that is deliberately annoying can be actively ignored. Behavior that is dangerous should be addressed quickly. Label your child's behavior in a non-judgmental way and provide a path forward. Helpful strategies include providing two choices or using when-then statements." (Example: "When you use your inside voice, then we can discuss why you're upset/angry.”)
It's also worth routinely checking in when your child isn't in the midst of a full-blown brat attack. "Find opportunities to check in with your child, sometime after they have recovered, and encourage them to identify their feelings, expectations, and their interpretation of the situation," adds Montgomery. "This is a great time to engage them in problem-solving (i.e., how to manage the situation differently in the future), validate their feelings, and offer alternative ways of interpreting similar situations."
"As a bonus, you may consider encouraging your child to test out these strategies in future situations and report back to you about their effectiveness," he continues. "In this way, you are providing them with an opportunity to learn about how to modify behavior, to be curious about their own behavior and the behavior of others, and to plan and test hypotheses using the scientific method."
Yep, it might seem a little odd to treat your baby's behavior like a science experiment, but when you let them know you're on their side and want to work with them — not against them — they'll feel more comfortable coming to you with problems or issues. Knowing they've got you to help them work through it will ultimately prevent them from acting out, and you'll have yourself a healthy communicator in training on your hands… instead of a spoiled brat.
Newport Beach, California-based child, adolescent, and adult psychologist Aaron Montgomery, Psy.D