So here’s another good mothering question:

This has absolutely nothing to do with this post, but I really value your mothering expertise and I need some advice and don’t know how else to ask you ha! Our 10 year old daughter is a sassy pants and can just be a bully to her siblings sometimes. I personally feel like this has to do with a low self esteem that she just naturally has. But she’s been a spitfire since the get go! We have tried taking away privileges, grounding her, taking away friends, taking away her toys for a period of time and letting her earn them back, I swear we’ve tried everything and NOTHING works on this girl. We’ve even taken away extracurricular activities, but boy that makes me nervous as I want her involved in sports etc for many reasons but one being that I don’t want her to fall away and find other less desirable things to occupy her time, so I don’t necessarily think that’s the best route. My other kids are not like this, so she is the only child that really really struggles with this. How do you curb sass in your family and how do help your child gain more self esteem? I believe if her self esteem could rise then she wouldn’t bully or sass as much, but we’re having a hard time helping her in that area as well. From a mom at her wit’s end. 🙂 

I’m sure other blog readers may have some great advice on this one, but mine, which you probably have already tried, is to focus on the positive.  Make a valiant effort to notice anything, and I mean anything positive.  How she spoke to her brother, how she cleared her plate after dinner, how she works at those extracurricular activities, how she looked at an adult in the eye.  Anything you can point out when you’re alone together or, even better, in front of others.

Kids seek attention, any way they can get it.  If it’s only negative attention they can get, they’ll still take it.  They crave it.  So if the things they’re doing makes their parents notice, bring it on!

So, if you can, completely ignore the sassy bully stuff.  Don’t give it the time of day.  Unless of course, it is really hurting someone, and in that case I think it’s time to be a “durable object.”   By this I mean don’t let your anger or emotions get involved.  You are just an object helping her follow through with a consequence (one that you two have worked out together beforehand).  With absolutely no emotion, let her know that that isn’t acceptable and calmly tell her to go to her room (or whatever you two have figured out) until she is ready to come out with a good attitude.  This is so hard.  I know because I’ve been there and when there’s smoke coming out of my ears and I am so incredibly angry it feels like you want to just explode.  But exploding doesn’t do much for the kid who’s in trouble, just makes them think maybe they should do that when they’re mad too.

I know this sounds simplistic, but I think it’s easy to threaten and take things away (and when we do, we really do need to follow through on that), but really so much more effective to dwell on any positive things that are happening and it will naturally drown out all the negative behavior.

Maybe:)  Worth a shot.

More ways to spill out positive affirmation:

Our friends do “Hip Hip Hoorays” during their family nights, where one of the parents goes through each child and tells one positive wonderful thing they did that week.  Then the whole family joins together to yell, “hip, hip, hooray!” before the parent moves on to the next child.  My kids think this is pretty awesome when we happen to be with them.

We also do our little tradition of writing talents on our kids’ fingertips to give some positive affirmation around here.  We write the first letter a specific thing they are great at (perhaps “d” for doing the dishes) on one finger and explain why we love it.  Then move on to the next finger.  (Pictures and better explanation about this back HERE.)

I would also highly recommend reading “How to Talk so Kids will Listen, and Listen so Kids will Talk.”  (HERE)  It is a powerful book.  It has helped me parent in countless ways over the years since I first read it.  In fact, I just pulled it out to read again the other day because I need a refresher.  It is that good.

Write them a personal note or text.  I learned so much from the mother character as we listened to Little Women this summer.  She is my hero!  One thing that really stuck out to me is when she wrote Jo a little private note of praise and encouragement.  I thought to myself, why don’t I do that more!?  So I started.  Whether it’s just a random text or a real, live hand-written note about what I love about a particular child, it makes a difference in the way they view themselves.  And I love looking for things to praise…makes me appreciate them that much more.

I know there are times when kids need some negative consequences.  I know there are times privileges need to be taken away.  But I think all the positive affirmation we can give comes first.  You’re right, kids need self-esteem.  The whole world tries to take it from them sometimes it seems, and if we can create a safe place in our families where kids can feel unconditionally loved and accepted because the good things they do get noticed, I really do think it has the power to wash out a lot of the acting out and negative behavior.  


  1. Shawni- what great reminders of things we can do to affirm out children! I just thought I would add another idea 🙂 My husband and I like the motto "get outside yourself" and so we will have our children do acts of service (sometimes of their choice and sometimes of our choice) as a sort of retribution for their wrong doing. These acts of service are not supposed to be just a chore, but something truly helpful to another person- cutting flowers for a neighbor, bringing a neighbors trash bins up after garbage day, drawing a picture for a sibling (our kids are little), etc.

  2. We have a daughter exactly like that. In fact I finally took her to see a doctor because it got so bad. I think part of her problem is that she is the oldest so we were always harder on her, expected more from her and showed her our angry faces more. I love everything Shawni has said and agree 100%. Three things that have helped us in addition to being positive are 1. Special Time(our doctor taught us this)- at least 15 minutes every day of time completely devoted to her. We do whatever she wants and I don't ask any questions or give any commands- kids get enough of that all day at school. This has helped so much because she doesn't have to share our time and she gets our complete attention. 2. Something I call 5 minutes- every night I try to make time to climb into bed next to my kids and let them tell me whatever they want for 5 minutes. Sometimes we have time for more. They tell me things about their day or worries or excitements and I just listen. It is such a great way to end the day. It's hard to always be able to do it and we have some nights we miss- but on the nights we do it I see a huge difference in their behavior. I only have three kids so this might not be doable for everyone. 3. Hugs- my daughter is at her worst when she feels anxious, threatened or stressed out so when I can tell that is what is driving the sass I stop and give her a hug and tell her how much I love her or I'll rub her back or tickle her arm for a minute and she always calms down and apologizes. I feel like the world expects so much from kids these days and social media tells them they aren't good enough around every corner so we have to try twice as hard to show them that they are perfect just the way they are and that we love them no matter what. It's gotten easier as she's gotten older, but the problem has never completely gone away because I think she is more prone to seeing the glass half empty but we just keep trying and loving and that's the best thing you can do.

    1. Love these thoughts. Thank you so much for sharing! I think all kids can sure benefit from physical contact and I agree that social media does a pretty great job knocking down, so kids need to be built up more than ever.

    2. TOTALLY AGREE WITH AMANDA! I would climb up into their bed (a huge feat for this mama) and just lay with each kid for a few minutes. End it with a hug, kiss on the cheek, and I Love You. The next day when she's sassy, I calmly and sincerely say, "You seem upset, but you don't talk to me that way. I love you. Remember I LOVE YOU. What's going on?" And often the response is a highly emotional story about something that happened at school that hurt her feelings that I had NO clue about! Helps her feel like she's not alone and I'm on her side, not against her.

  3. Can you pass along to this sweet Momma that a book that helped me out immensely in this area with my 6-year-old is called "Parenting without Power Struggles" by Susan Stiffelman

  4. I too love the book How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen, however, two books I like even more are The Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline. They changed the way I parent and react to my kids. All of the recommendations above and Shawni's are spot on in my opinion. Good luck, things will get better and then worse and then better again and then a new challenge will come up and then you will figure that out and then you will start to worry about another child…. 🙂

  5. Lots of great advice here! Parenting can be so difficult and it often seems each child responds differently to different parenting styles. Figuring that out is the hard thing. One of my favorite books is "The 10 Greatest Gifts I Give My Children" by Steven W. Vannoy. Simple, yet powerful principles that teach how to parent from the heart.

    1. So true. And every parent is coming from such different backgrounds and each personality is so unique. I love a good book that helps through these challenges. I'll have to check this one out too.

  6. I LOVE an old blog called She's kinda like Shawni, an incredible mother, who gives out super helpful advice. Her blog was short lived but honestly that makes more less reading, right?! 🙂 I remember seeing an old blog post about a similar question there (sorry I'm not linking it!). Hope that helps! I've thought repeatedly about things that mother has mentioned.

  7. We have the same issue with one of ours…. the hug or back rub has saved us from meltdowns many times. Even as she has gotten older and "hugs aren't cool," she still melts into them when she needs one.

  8. Another great resource (aimed at younger children/toddlers) is Janet Lansbury. I have an almost three year old and we have learned so much valuable information across a wide variety of "struggles" from Janet. My child is almost three, but I find Janet's approach works (with slight modification!) with my middle and high school students I teach.

    *Also, Shawni, Marmi is one of my mothering heroines too! One of my fav scenes is when she teaches Jo how to bite her lip before exploding with a temper. Such a great book.

  9. Shawni,

    Your link to the post about sitting down and talking to your kids about their talents was really moving. What a wonderful way to help your kids focus on the positive and believe in themselves. And how I wish I'd read that years ago when my kids were little.

    There are so many things I wish I'd done better as a parent, but one thing I am proud of is teaching my kids to support each other instead of bullying and teasing. So – I will offer an additional suggestion for the mom asking the question, which is, engage your daughter as an important contributor to the family culture. Talk to her about how you want your family to be a place where people are loving and respectful of each other. Find out how she would like the family to support her when she's feeling wobbly and help her think about how she, as the oldest, can help make the family a place where everyone – parents and each child – can count on that support. I always felt it helped to engage my kids as collaborators.

    (This worked most the time, but not always. There were time they just flat didn't care and that's when I played hardball and put them on the Thinking Bench until they figured out three nice things to say to the sibling they were tormenting. )

  10. Thank you for this post! I need reminders constantly on this subject. It is so easy to get into negative response habits versus this proactive positive habit. One book that I really appreciated on this subject is called "hold onto you kids". It really made me think about who had my children's hearts, and inspires me to create deep connections with them. The author does a pretty amazing job of pointing out where some of these negative behaviors are really formed, it is such a great book.

  11. While you're in Q&A mode, can I ask a question? I give so much effort to being a deliberate mother. I have found so many great resources (like your blog!!!) and I think I have picked up some helpful skills. However, I think my marriage has suffered at the expense of my motherhood. I think I use up all my patience during the day on my kids and I'm fresh out by the time my husband gets home. I need someone to give me "wife skills" as clearly as I can find resources with "mom skills". Any concrete tips you can pass along? Especially for those of us with little kids. Thanks!

  12. When I was this age, I was this child!! I was the oldest, lots of high expectations, lots of self-imposed perfectionist tendencies, shy and sensitive. I was also terribly mean to my siblings, controlling of anything I could be (I once locked myself in the family car, thus locking everyone else out so they couldn't go to an event I'd been banned from) etc, etc. I was difficult. BUT, somewhere around age 12-13, it all clicked. My teen years were relatively smooth-sailing. Sports/extra-curriculars were vital to this, so I think you are spot on there! But coming from this experience myself and now parenting this (yes it has truly come full-circle 😬) I'd say keep loving hard and hang on! Pray for specific ways to reach your child. You can do this!

  13. I have a child similar to this and I find when anyone is being hurtful- they are hurting inside. Whether that's not getting enough sleep or not feeling connected or whatever… my frustrated rantings or attemting to reasom or punishments or taking away things – none of that has been effective for me. The things that do seem to really help are choosing to "love more", any one on one or connecting time, my daughter like this thrives off WORDS of affirmation so writing notes or yes praising the good, doing "secrets" at night where my kids can tell me anything everything on their minds, after 10 days of then completing all their daily responsibilities in our family they get to plan a one on one date with a parent, laughing more… it's all so so hard sometimes but these ideas seem to help us. I'm cheering this mother on!! There is hope! Faith, hope, and charity… wow are those ever needed as a mother!

  14. I'm tired and didn't read through all the comments, (and I'm sure these have been mentioned) but I would suggest a few options.
    1) how do you speak of her in front of others? I have a harder middle child and have caught myself saying that to others out loud. Not good! See all the good you can like Shawni suggested.
    2) LOVE. I'm reminded over and over that our kids (we have 5 kids ages 11 and under) need two main things from us: to feel SAFE and to feel LOVED.
    3) one on one time. This is hard but helps her connection to you.
    4) eye contact. We forget that eye contact attaches us in our relationships. It's important ��
    (And for the record, I'm just a tired mom doing my best with my kiddos like we all are – I don't know any right answer. Just know what's helping with our family. You are ALL wonderful mothers. I just know it. ��)

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