“I’m Right and You’re Wrong!” Is Your Child a Know-it-all?
By James Lehman, MSW
Does your child always insist that they’re right and everyone else is wrong? Some kids have a bad habit of asserting their opinions by drowning out everyone else in the room—regardless of whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Understandably, this overbearing behavior can be very annoying and frustrating for both parents and family members alike.
“If you want a child to be a real pain in the neck—if you want to strengthen some behavior or characteristic—just argue with them. It will serve to exercise that muscle and make your child feel more powerful.”
Before I give you ideas for dealing with this behavior, I want to make one thing clear: As kids grow, they need to develop their interests and ideas, and they need to learn how to express them. They also have to learn where they end emotionally and where their parents begin—what we call "emotional boundaries." At different developmental periods, kids go through a process called separation and individuation. Sometimes this process is not very noticeable at all, and sometimes it occurs very intensively. As an older child or teen, they continue that process by learning how to form their own opinions. So realize that some of the behavior you’re experiencing with your teen or pre-teen is very normal for this stage in life.
I also can’t stress enough the importance of listening to your child once. I know they can be obnoxious and irritating—but just remember that sometimes they might be stating an opinion about something you really need to know about. It might be something the teacher is doing that may be inappropriate, a dangerous thing the bus driver is doing, or a risky behavior on the part of your child’s friends. It’s important that you listen to your kids with an open mind, because when something important does come along, you want to make sure they feel free to bring it to you.
Saying that, if your child’s need to assert their opinions crosses the line and becomes obnoxious, there are things you can do to help curtail that behavior and teach them more socially appropriate ways of behaving, both inside and outside of the family.
Don’t Be Frightened by Your Child’s Opinions
Do not be frightened by kids’ opinions—just respond to them honestly. I think it’s much more effective to judge your child by their behavior rather than by their opinions, thoughts or ideas. Often their ideas are based on peer conversations at school, rumors, cultural events, or something they’ve seen or heard in the media. When your child or teen is talking to you, they’re often trying to shape their own opinions. It’s better to hear your child out, state your opinion honestly, let them respond, and then respectfully disengage from the conversation. That way, nobody gets their feelings hurt and you’ve avoided an argument.
So don’t be threatened by your child’s opinions and assertions, even if they’re wrong. The more you ignore these kinds of statements, the sooner they will go away. In fact, if you want a child to be a real pain in the neck—if you want to strengthen some behavior or characteristic—just argue with them. It will serve to exercise that muscle and make your child feel more powerful.
Don’t Keep the Argument Going
If your child is trying to start an argument with you, don’t keep it going. Parents often feel like they have to get the last word in to be in control, which in reality only serves to further the child’s urge to argue with you. If you disagree with your adolescent child, they often think it’s because you don’t understand what they’re saying, so they’ll keep trying to put it another way. This is because people who are immature in their communication styles aren’t always able to see that you don’t agree with their position. They think that if they could just explain it a little better, you’d understand and accept it. This is another reason why arguments with kids can keep going even after you’ve explained your point of view.
If your child tends to be argumentative and you stay in the argument with them, it makes them feel more powerful and in control. Don’t forget: kids only have the power you give them. Some of the power they need to have is very important; it helps them develop their personal and social lives. In fact, it’s very important that they gain increasing access to power as they grow older and individuate more. On the other hand, when it comes to discussing house rules or consequences or privileges, I think that after they state their opinion, you say, “I understand, but this is the way it is,” and then leave. If you stand there, they think it’s OK to keep talking. When you get out of the situation, it takes the power out of the room.
One of the most powerful things you can do with kids who are know-it-alls is not respond to them when they try to drag you into an argument. Be respectful but disengage, because each time you respond, they feel compelled to answer back—and as you know, the discussion will just keep going and going.
When your child has come up with some erroneous statement in an attempt to prove their point, the best thing you can do is state your opinion honestly. When they state their counter opinion, you can say, “That’s really interesting. I have to go downstairs now.” If what they are saying has to do with health or safety: then you should correct it and walk away.
Don’t Let One Child Ruin It for Everybody
If family members are having dinner, watching TV or a movie together at home, don’t let one child dominate the conversation in such a way that it blocks everyone else from expressing their opinions. It’s very important to understand that while everyone’s opinion is valued, it’s usually valued once. After that, it becomes harassment. If one of your children doesn’t like what you’re having for dinner or doesn’t care for the movie choice, give them their options and don’t let them sit there and continue to annoy everyone with their negativity. Always have a back-up plan. This usually includes having them go to their room until they can let go of the topic or complaint they’re stuck on. This does not have to be a punishment or consequence. It’s just a time out for your child in his or her room, until they can get off the subject. Often, when kids are over-stimulated, anxious or frustrated, it’s hard for them to switch thoughts on their own. A change of scenery and a few minutes away from the stimulation can be very helpful.
Many parents of children who act in an overbearing way find it effective to come up with a cuing system with their child to signal that they’re “doing it again.” You and your child should agree on a signal, just like a cue in a movie or play. The gesture means, “Really stop it now. You’ve stated your opinion and you need to let it go. If you go further, there are going to be consequences.” Many parents find this a very effective, non-verbal tool for helping their child curtail inappropriate behavior without embarrassing them in front of others.
My Child Won’t Let His Siblings Express Themselves
If your child won’t let his siblings express themselves, or will not listen to their opinions, what I would recommend is that you say “Jack, you aren’t listening to others. How can you keep arguing your position when you won’t even listen to your sister’s answer? Why don’t you give her a second and hear what she’s saying?” That way, you provide an example to your other kids so they can learn to say, “You’re not listening.”
If your kids won’t stop arguing back and forth, you can also say, “I’m tired of this bickering. This conversation has 60 more seconds, and if you don’t stop, you’re going to your rooms.” At first, the child who’s the know-it-all might get more obnoxious, but just follow through with the consequences so he learns how to stop. Give them the responsibility that the argument has to stop in 60 seconds and when it doesn’t, you hold them accountable. In this way they learn to meet the responsibility of stopping the argument, as well as a more socially appropriate way of behaving.
Remember, as a parent, you don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to; you can make choices. Although it is very important that kids feel like they’re being heard and responded to, it does not mean they get to go on endlessly. We can all debate about a lot of things, but we’re responsible to a structure in our home. The truth is, we all have varied opinions about our jobs, our supervisors, or our teachers, but as we mature, we have to learn to deal with our thoughts and feelings independently and keep our opinions separate from our functioning at school or work, as well.
This is very important for kids to understand: There’s a difference between his or her opinion about things and the way the family structure—and the world—operates.
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