Help! My Kid is a Brat!

An interview with Betsy Brown Braun

I gotta admit, sometimes I fear I’m raising a brat.  My only comfort is when I look around, I see them everywhere! We constantly try to teach our youngsters manners, respect, patience, kindness and empathy, and so often it feels like an uphill battle.  Betsy Brown Braun, parenting guru and author of “You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing your 4 to 12 Year-Old Child” has been known to call them the “F’ing Fours” for a reason – this is a tough behavioral moment for so many of us.  BBB, give us some guidance — we need you!          — Sam Kurtzman-Counter, Exec VP of TMC

Is there any way to guard against a kid being a brat?


“Brat” means different things to different parents. To one it’s when her child is being disrespectful, maybe talking back. To another it’s when his child is being defiant. But being “bratty” at some time or other is a pretty normal part of growing up. In fact, most kids figure out what to do by not doing so.  This includes sometimes being a brat.

The truth of the matter is that children who feel connected to their parents, who feel significant to them are going to be less bratty.  All children, and I mean ALL children, want to please their parents, want them to feel proud, and so they really do want to do the right thing.  Children who feel good about themselves, who have self efficacy , who feel that they matter, do not need to seek negative attention by being bratty. If we cultivate in our kids all the good stuff—independence, self reliance, responsibility, respect, etc… they will be less likely to be bratty.  That’s what my second book, You’re Not the Boss of Me, is all about.

How do we teach our 3-6 year olds what respect means?


Respect is a difficult concept for a child to grasp, yet parents use the word all the time, expecting that the child gets it. And respect has lots of different meanings. You respect your body by keeping it clean. You respect your toys by treating them properly and putting them away. You respect a sports hero who works so hard for his achievements. It’s a tricky concept, isn’t it?

In order to understand the respect to which I think you are referring, not only does the child have to have empathy—knowing how the other guy feels, but he also has to grasp the hierarchy of relationships among people.  This understanding grows in time and with practice.  I can tell you that children who are raised with respect are put into a position to be respectful.  You can’t scream at your child and then turn around and tell him not to yell at you. Gritting your teeth, wagging your finger, and spitting “Don’t you dare speak to me with that tone!” certainly doesn’t model respect.  Neither does barking orders or slinging sarcastic observations (“You’re not going to wear that, are you?)  This would be a good place to remind you of the golden rule. Treating others the way you want to be treated models your respect for them.

How should parents react to back talk?


Your reaction to back talk needs to be based on your understanding of the context in which it is occurring.  When a child is really crabby, hungry, exhausted, he may be less able to control his back talk. And children usually save their worst, most uncensored behavior for the person whose love they trust the most.  Isn’t it funny how the child would never tell his teacher to Go away! Or stick out his tongue at her when he is angry?

Back talk is never okay, but almost all kids give it try. The age of the child and the context of the back talk will guide the nature of your response. Calmly and seriously saying “ I don’t speak to you that way and it’s not okay for you to speak to me that way” and then walking away, not only gives the child the message that it is not acceptable but also he gets NO attention for doing so.  Older children (five years and beyond)  might need a chance to adjust their tone, and so you can say, “Do you need a do-over?” The key in dealing with back talk is not dealing with it in the heat of the moment. Stop the action by giving it no attention when feelings are elevated. Go back when the temperature has dropped and revisit with you child what happened.  “You were really angry when I wouldn’t let you watch tv, and so you spoke to me really disrespectfully. It’s okay to be mad at me, but back talk is not ok.”

How can we discourage rude behavior?

Not only is rude behavior disrespectful, but it is also impolite, unmannerly, and embarrassing when it happens in public!  Most children do know that they are being rude, so lecturing them about it in the moment won’t do much. Often just giving “the look” is enough in the moment. As with back talk, it needs to be addressed after feelings (yours and his) have settled down.

When rude behavior is a coping mechanism, consequences or punishment will not help. The child who refuses to say “hello” isn’t necessarily trying to be rude; often he is a victim of his particular temperament (“shy”) and is unable to step up. This child needs alternatives.

And sometimes the child is just plain trying out being rude, testing the waters, strutting his stuff. In this case, it just can’t work. “Children who spit at the table are not welcome here. You are excused.” No audience and no attention.  When the child sees either that there will be an immediate, logical consequence for the rude behavior or that he gets absolutely nothing (positive or negative attention) as a result, it will stop.

How should a parent react to “I hate you” or “I love Daddy more than you?”


These kinds of comments just plain sting.  But do you really think your child hates you?  The key is not to take it personally. Your child is expressing his feelings. While everyone has a different level of tolerance for these expressions, I do not see them as disrespectful. They are  sometimes hurtful, however.  Giving the expression too much attention will only encourage your child to use it more because it works.  You can calmly say, “Let me know when you are ready to talk about why you are so angry,” and then walk away.  When you revisit later on, you can tell your child that his words were hurtful, if you felt that way. But you will get farther if you address the reason for his anger, giving him choices for what he could have done, rather than dwelling on his expression. And do let him know that you know he really doesn’t hate you!

Betsy Brown Braun is the bestselling author of the just released, “You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing your 4 to 12 Year-Old Child” (HarperCollins, 2010) and the award winning “Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents” (HarperCollins, 2008 – now in it’s 4th printing).  She’s also a child development and behavior specialist, parent educator and multiple birth parenting consultant with 40 years of experience in public and private early childhood and elementary education.  You can learn more about Betsy, her books and her consulting practice at

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our DVD series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show”, which helps young children express their feelings. We want to be a parenting tool — for you!

Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice

Comments (15)

  1. Cortney

    I need help!!!!!!

    I have a 3 and a 6 year old. Both girls , the oldest comes from a broken home. With mental abuse and other forms of abuse. That I am currently seeking help for threw community out reach. Well with the 6 year old. She is blatently disrespectful. She cannot handle being in school longer than an hour. She deliberately peels the paint off my walls while in time out. Colors on the walls knowing that it is wrong. She gos potty on my floors. Puts wax from candles on t.vs. an much much more. I have tried everything to positive posters Charts. Taking away toys an making her earn them back. I have reached out to her school they keep telling me that the school is way under staffed an low funded to have her there all day…. An now my 3 year old is picking up such behavioral issues. An I am at my wits end I need advice or a direction I can go to help me help her.


    • Abbie

      How overwhelming! You need some help! We hear you. If you are parenting a child who has been abused and is showing signs of deeply disturbing behavior as you are describing, please please get her AND you some support from a therapist. (And many there are therapists offered at a variety of prices.) We wish we could solve everything in this response but it isn’t possible. This will take some time and some learning on your part to help your children become more cooperative and respectful and respect will never happen with time-outs and punitive parenting (like taking toys away). Your girls are clearly in desperate need of your attention and they are getting it in a negative way – and it sounds like you’ve tried many things. If you can at least start with online resources around positive parenting, that will be a good start. The library will offer some books too – but you need more support than that. Read my response above to Julia, read our posts on discipline, defiance, positive parenting (and more) and get some professional help. It takes a village – but a village of wise, supportive people who can work with you and this situation before it gets worse. Because without help, that’s where it is heading. Good luck.


  2. Julia

    I just have to comment here! My daughter is ….spirited. Born the year this article was written.

    She is 50% a super sweet, kind child. The other 50%, she is as willfull and defiant as they come. I feel like no one tells this girl what to do. To get her to go along with me, I have to make her want to do it. Time out is a joke. “You are excused from the table” as the article suggests? No way. If she doesn’t want to leave the table there is no making her without a huge huge fiight and being forceful. She asks me a question, I answer and before I can even get all the words out I am told to “stop talking”. I’m constantly being told to “go away” and to “leave me alone”. She tells me she is going to hit me if I don’t stop doing something she does not like. We have spanked her a handful of times and apparently she has latched onto our occasional threat of a spanking about once a week. Of course she has. She takes our lowest moments as parents, and then throws them back in our faces as a reminder of what a crap job we are doing. She literally orders me around all day and if I don’t do exactly what she wants, in the way she wants it done, she tell me we will have to “start all over”. Sometimes I will comply just to get out of the door, sometimes I won’t and again HUGE fit. Tantrum, screaming. We are still working on potty training and again, huge nightmare. She would rather just go in her pants. She only thing that works is awarding her or bribing her to go, but she will never just go of her own accord in our house. In fact she will hold her #2’s for a week or longer so at this point I am just happy if she goes in her pants at all. Needless to say she is a defiant, spirited child who will fight tooth and nail over the smallest most. insignificant details. Apparently they are important to her for some reason. Just venting here.

    How on earth do you make any child do anything??? Praise doesn’t seem to work. I praise her constantly when she does right and acts sweet. I’m just tired of punishing her for all the rest. She is her own woman and it will serve her well one day, she is just really hard to parent. Today she had to make her own waffles. I couldn’t help her at all. She had to get the plate and knife out of the drawer, get the toaster out and hoist it up in the counter, get the waffles out of the freezer, get the butter and syrup out, cook the waffles, put butter and syrup ON them (cringe) bring them to the table. She has to do it ALL including pouring juice and I’m just dying inside watching her do this. She spills sometimes, I clean it up. Huge tantrum if she can’t do it all her self and that is only breakfast.

    I’m in the verge of getting some psychological help. This girl has me perplexed. My degree is in Child Psychology too! Oh the irony.


    • Abbie

      I’m not sure where to start! From what you describe, clearly you are not in control of your (sounds like very young) child and your skills as a parent and knowledge from your degree in Child Psychology are completely unravelling. I’m so sorry! It sounds just awful for you both.

      First of all, stop spanking. That will only make things worse, drive you apart, sever any trust and spanking is a desperate measure to be avoided.

      You need to arm yourself with effective parenting skills instead! Sounds like you need some coaching on creating and maintaining consistent boundaries. Look for parenting lectures and classes. At the very least, get the book “Parenting without Power Struggles” or “Calmer Easier Happier Parenting” and crack them open asap. As her parent, you have to be in charge. Once you’ve read these books, start to use their advice and expect some tantrums (just ride those storms out as unpleasant as they are) as you start to assert control over the situation – she will certainly be curious to test her NEW boundaries.

      Your daughter is feels very out of control with the unlimited power you’ve given her. I know it is counter-intuitive but the more you give in, the more difficult she will be. So read those books and for now:

      1. Your daughter is not allowed to “order you around” or talk to you in a disrespectful way by saying “Go away” – you can coach her to ask for some time alone if that’s what she wants but you can’t respond to rude requests. Model the good behavior you want from her.
      2. Don’t make potty training a power struggle – which it sounds like it has become. First things first, regain control of your daughter’s schedule, language, and some of her defiant behavior. Then tackle this. You can say, “I’ve noticed that sometimes you forget you aren’t wearing a diaper. I am wondering if we should try pull ups for a little longer.” (I don’t know your daughter’s age or how long you’ve been working on this but I’m assuming around age 3?) If she is three, developmentally is when she is most defiant. All the more reason to read those books!
      3. Stop bribing her – it gives her the control. You might want to transition to a sticker chart which works for some kids to REWARD good behavior. Number a paper 1-10 and put boxes where the stickers will go. Let her know ahead of time what she can earn stickers for to win a prize (you can start with inexpensive books or toys – but work towards experiences with you – like going to the pumpkin patch etc). She can win stickers for cooperating by getting her jammies on with you only asking once. Or for being patient and polite by staying at the table. Or for being sharing during a playdate. Or for being cooperative at the store. Don’t use the chart ever to punish her. (And don’t give her stickers unless she really deserved them.)
      4. Stop praising her “constantly” as it may seem insincere. Especially if that praise is “good job” but instead comment on the values you want her to have as you see them. “I noticed you were so patient just now,” (and resist the “Good job” ending to that.)

      Children need to feel attached to their parents and secure in that connection. So the last thing you might want to do is “special time” – put away your phone, turn off the TV, and just “be” with her – for 15-20 minutes daily to play. Let her choose what she’d like to play, games, tea set, blocks, puzzles – up to her. Set a timer (especially since she has trouble with boundaries) and just play for that time, uninterrupted.
      At the end of that time, let her know you love spending time with her but now its time for you to get dinner (or whatever) ready and she can read her books or continue playing. Monitor the amount of her TV, sleep and eating too to make sure those aren’t also contributing to her behavior.

      And good luck. Parenting is hard – but it should be enjoyable too. As soon as you right this ship, you – and she – will be so much happier. And in control.


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