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Kids Behavior Dilemma: Help! My Child Acts Bratty at His Birthday Parties

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Question: Kids Behavior Dilemma: Help! My Child Acts Bratty at His Birthday Parties

Help! I have a kids behavior question. My son seems to think that birthdays entitle him to act bratty. He demands to be the first one to hit the piñata and he gets upset if he doesn't win the games, all because it's his birthday. In the excitement of opening gifts, he sometimes forgets to say thank you and sometimes hardly looks at a gift before opening the next one.

How can I help him understand that behavior rules don't change just because it's your birthday?

Answer:

Great question. While some kids dread their birthdays because of the extra attention that will shine on them, other children bask in the limelight and assume it's their day to be king or queen.

Everyone deserves to feel special on their birthday, but the kind of behavior you describe will have the opposite effect--what kid would want to attend a party knowing they're going to get pushed around and belittled by the birthday boy or girl? If your child continues to use bad manners at his birthday, no one will want to attend next year's party.

Wendy Young, a child and family therapist and founder of Kidlutions, a program that helps kids deal with emotional and behavioral issues, says a big, bad birthday attitude won't serve the child well when they reach adulthood.

"Can you imagine telling a police officer, 'Sorry, ma'am. I didn't mean to blow through that red light at 25 miles above the speed limit. But after all, it is my birthday,'" she says. "The real world doesn't give any of us a 'behavioral-free-for-all card' on our birthdays."

In other words, birthdays aren't an excuse to misbehave, be rude or disrespectful.

"Limits and behavioral expectations should remain in place even on a birthday," she says. Why? "Because limits make kids feel safe. Knowing that limits remain constant helps kids know where their boundaries are and know what to expect."

Young advises setting ground rules before the party begins. Then, if a rule is broken, it's easy to say, "Remember before the party started, we agreed that ... " That way, consequences won't come as a surprise.

Kids aren't born with good manners; it's parents' jobs to teach them. So you might even want to practice waiting in line and gift opening with your child the day before the party. Literally wrap some pretend presents and have your child practice opening them, looking the gift giver in the eye and saying "thank you" before moving to the next one. (Make it fun and not demeaning, though. You know your child best: If this isn't a problem for him, you don't have to do this.)

But what should parents do when, despite preparation, things go wrong?

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a Princeton, N.J.-based psychologist and author of "What About Me: 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister)" and other books, says the first thing adults need to do when a birthday kid misbehaves is to stay calm.

"This can be difficult when you're working so hard to create a special day for your child and your child is acting like a brat," she says. "Remind yourself that your child doesn't mean to be ungrateful or disrespectful. She's just caught up in the excitement."

And reacting with anger won't help your child calm down.

"It's likely to act like gasoline on a fire," she says.

Instead:

  • Ignore what you can. "If the misbehavior is merely annoying, and not dangerous or destructive, you may want to let it slide for the duration of the party," Kennedy-Moore says. "You can help your child get back on track another time. You don't have to bring up the misbehavior after the party. Just correct your child if she does it again."
  • Stand next to your child. "Just having you nearby, maybe even having your gentle hand on his shoulder, can help your child regain self-control," she says.
  • Shift to a new activity. "Getting everyone involved in doing something can help channel energy," Kennedy-Moore says. "You may want to start a game or craft. Eating tends to calm children, so maybe it's time for food. Or, weather permitting, you can use my parenting answer for what ails ya: 'Everybody outside!'"
  • Don't shame your child. "If you need to reprimand your child, try to do it briefly and privately in a non-blaming way," she says. "Acknowledge your child's excitement but remind her of appropriate behavior. Emphasize what she should do rather than what she shouldn't." For example, Kennedy-Moore suggests saying, "I know you're so excited to have your friends here for your party, but you need to remember to keep your hands to yourself."
  • Remind them of what to adults seems obvious but to kids might not be. "If your child's behavior is hurting or bothering another child, you may want to mention that," she says. "'Jeremy is not enjoying having you kick him under the table. I know you were trying to be funny, but it hurt his ankle.'"

Teaching our kids proper behavior is challenging enough on a regular day, but with the excitement surrounding a birthday party it can be even more difficult.

"It's very hard for kids to listen when they are excited, so you may need to get your child to repeat back to you what he needs to do," Kennedy-Moore says. Tell them, "'I know you want to hurry back to the party, but I need to make sure you heard me. So, what do you need to do?'"

Remember, you're the adult. You're in charge. If your child is mistreating others or acting rudely, it's your job to step in and coach them--yes, even on their birthdays. It's better to learn those lessons now than, say, when they're speeding through those red lights as teens and adults and the consequences are far more serious.

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