Any of this sound familiar? 

Your four-year-old is upset that you won’t let them pour all the shampoo in the bathtub. They get really, really angry and say, “You’re mean! You’re not invited to my birthday party!” or “You’re not my best friend!” 

Or perhaps your 12-year-old can’t find the shirt that she really wanted to wear and she’s storming around the house.  When you offer to help, she just says “Leave me alone!” or “You don’t understand anything!”   

This can be really hard. It might hurt our feelings and or make us feel unappreciated. Some of us might even find that it is a real trigger for us because it feels disrespectful. 

When anyone talks back–whether it is the little kid in the bathtub, the older child looking for their t-shirt, or even you the parent who is feeling disrespected– it is because we get overwhelmed by our own big feelings.

It feels like an emergency. Our protective emergency response system of Fight-Flight-Freeze gets activated.

The rude talk is the FIGHT! of a hijacked nervous system. We’re no longer operating from our logical thinking brain. Our impulses and our emotions have taken over. 

This is the thing about our nervous system: it can’t tell the difference between a real threat or a perceived threat. The overwhelm of a person’s own feelings can feel as dangerous as a tiger jumping out in front of them on the path.  

That automatic fight response means that when people of any age get hijacked, we say and do things that we don’t mean. 

Of course your four-year-old loves you and wants you to come to their birthday party! 

Of course your 12-year-old knows that you’re just trying to help, but they’re just feeling really overwhelmed by their feelings at that moment of not being able to find the shirt.  

To us as parents it might feel silly. At the same time, we have to remember that we don’t get to decide what is reasonable to get upset about. 

We understand this more intuitively when our kids are little. If a 2-year-old is having a meltdown, we are more likely to understand that they aren’t in control of themselves. We would be empathetic and comforting and do our best to be there for our child. 

As children grow, we expect them to be able to manage themselves better than they’re actually capable of when they’re overwhelmed.  

Picture this: You are making dinner and it has been a long day. The last thing you feel like doing is making dinner, but you’ve got hungry kids to feed. When your partner comes home, they find you slamming around the kitchen. Your partner asks “Hey, what’s up?” 

And you respond “Why do you care? You NEVER help me!” 

Of course that’s not true!  

But in the moment, you’re feeling overwhelmed and upset. You lash out

and say something rude because you’re hijacked. You’re not in control of your emotions in that moment. Your self-regulation is low. 

What would you want your partner to do or say? I know what I would want my partner to say: “Whoa. It seems like you’re having a really bad day. How can I help? I’m here for you.”   

I know that a lot of people might respond by lashing back out at the other person and saying “What’s your problem?!” and then storming off.  It takes a lot of emotional generosity and a lot of maturity to be able to respond like that when someone’s just been rude to us. 

If we’re slamming around the kitchen when we feel overwhelmed and exhausted and alone and we lash out at our partner, what we really want is a hug and some empathy. We want our partner to not take it personally that we’ve just talked rudely. We want some love and compassion. 

Of course, it doesn’t excuse our behavior. That’s where being gracious comes in. We have to remember that when people act poorly, they’re doing the best they can. 

What do you do when your child speaks rudely to you? 

Regulate yourself. 

We need to remember to first regulate ourselves by using Stop, Drop, and Breathe.  

Give yourself a mindset shift.

Remind ourselves, “They’re doing the best they can.” It’s also helpful to give ourselves compassion. No one likes to be talked to that way!  

Try to stay in the moment. Sometimes we’re afraid that we have to show them that they can’t talk to us like that. 

That’s our fear talking. 

We’re afraid that they’re never going to learn how to treat people properly. We need to stay present and think, “What does my child need right now in THIS moment? What would I do if I wasn’t afraid? How can I choose radical love over fear and respond with compassion?” 

This is tough! It’s really hard not to take it personally when someone has spoken rudely to us.  

Respond with compassion. 

Just for this moment, don’t worry about addressing the rudeness or trying to teach them.  

Try this:  Say to your angry and frustrated 12- year- old, “Wow, you are having such a hard time right now. It’s so frustrating that you can’t find your shirt. I might not understand, but I’m here to help if you need anything.” 

Or to your angry and disappointed 4 year old, “Aw sweetie. I hear how disappointed you are that you can’t pour all the shampoo in the tub. It would be so fun, wouldn’t it? To pour all that out and make bubbles. You’re mad because I won’t let you. I hear you.”  

We want to focus on soothing and empathizing and making that person feel understood. When we’re overwhelmed by big feelings, empathy is the only thing that makes anyone want to calm down. 

A lot of us might be tempted to say, “I’ll help you when you speak to me properly.”  

Imagine if you felt overwhelmed and needed help at dinner and your partner said, “I’ll help you if you ask me nicely.” That would probably make you more upset! 

If you feel you need to address the rude talk?   

Try this:  “Of course I will help you find your shirt, darling. Let’s look for it together. You can just say, ‘mom, will you please help me?’ And I will help you.” You’re modeling the behavior you’d like to see.  

Over time, this calm response actually helps children develop more emotional self-regulation. They learn that their big feelings are not an emergency.  

When we respond with compassion, it also leaves room for repair. When I’ve done this with my kids, they always come back and say, “I’m so sorry that I yelled at you. I shouldn’t have talked to you that way.” 

Nobody WANTS to yell at people they love. Nobody WANTS to treat people that they love badly. We are hardwired for connection with each other. 

When your child lashes out at you, respond in a way that supports your child and helps bring the two of you closer together.  

Let your child know that you’re there for them, even when they’re having a hard time and not at their best behavior. Just like we would want people to show up for us when we’re having a hard time and we’re not at our best behavior. 

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