The Thin Line Between Grumpy and Rude

The Thin Line Between Grumpy and Rude

I don’t know if it is the heat of the summer, the fact that my boys are heading into 7th grade, the sheer amount of togetherness that summer brings, or something else altogether, but my house has been filled with grumpy boys lately. Enough so, that I reached out to some mom friends and asked them, “Can someone talk with me about the thin line between a grumpy child and a rude child?”

I’m going to spare you a description of just HOW grumpy my kids have been. If you’re reading this, you are probably a parent and have plenty of stories about your own children. You don’t need a description of what I mean, because you have lived it. You’ve lived those moments where grumpy instantaneously transforms into rude. I know I’m not alone in this…

All parents have battle scars.

And it isn’t just our kids. We are all susceptible to letting a minor irritation go unchecked just long enough to transform from unpleasant to ugly. So what do you do? How do we teach our kids to take control of their own emotions? How do we foster the self-awareness required to manage pro-social responses? As parents coaching our kids, how do we have sufficient empathy to build missing skills so our kids can learn self-regulation?

I don’t always intuitively know the answers to these kinds of questions. Parenting is not all instinct. I’ve never raised a seventh-grader before, much less two seventh-graders at once. And I’m not blessed with the built-in learning curve of having evenly spaced kids. I don’t have one kid who gets all the trial and error and the other who benefits from the wisdom gained by the first one. My kids basically go through all the developmental stages together. Since we’re not planning to have any more kids, Davis and Patrick are stuck with our first pass at parenting.

This is where, for me, it most definitely takes a village to raise my kids. I NEED other parents’ wisdom—the wisdom that only comes from lived experience. So here is a smattering of the advice I’ve received from my village, along with some things that work for our family:

Aware beats grumpy.

My friend Denise reminded me about HALT. It’s a self-assessment that is based on the notion that being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired can trigger a disproportionate emotional response—in kids AND adults.

HALTThis made sense to me. So, what did I do with Denise’s advice? First, I talked with the boys about it. I explained what HALT stood for. I asked them to think of times that they overreacted to a problem (because there were plenty of examples that day) and to think about how HALT played a role.

Then we brainstormed what they could do IF they recognized that HALT was causing them problems. Here were their ideas:

If hungry:

  • Drink a glass of water
  • Eat a meal or snack

If angry:

  • Leave the situation
  • Play basketball or take the dogs for a walk
  • Take some deep breaths
  • Call or text a friend

If lonely:

  • Call or text a friend
  • Make plans with a friend
  • Grab a book or play a game

If tired:

  • Take a nap
  • Go to bed early or sleep in the next morning

You better bet that after our conversation, I made a cute sign to hang on the fridge. My kids came up with awesome ideas to help themselves, and I wanted to remind them without having to nag them. (If you want a copy of my fridge sign, you can download it here: HALT Fridge Sign.)

As smart and talented and emotionally mature and self-aware, etc. as they are, my boys will not learn this on their own (at least not quickly enough for me). So Rob and I are working hard to recognize when their grumpy responses might be driven by HALT and gently guide them through self-assessment and problem solving—hopefully before they cross that thin line into being rude.

Practice pro-social responses.

HALT isn’t an end-all, be-all solution for grumpy pre-teens. Honestly, the thing that gets me more than anything else is that tone of voice. You know the one, with the edge, the disdain, the annoyance. Please tell me that I’m not the only mother who experiences that tone…

I’ve come to realize that my kids don’t know they are using it. They don’t actually recognize the tonal difference between grumpy and pleasant…which means that I perceive them to be rude more often than they think they are being rude.

So what’s the approach when they don’t even know something is wrong? First, I have to help them identify when *that* tone emanates from their mouth. You know that driving this level of self-awareness is not a task for the faint-hearted. Because, really, they are already grumpy before you say a SINGLE WORD. But they can’t fix what they don’t recognize, so I arm myself with that thick protective barrier moms sometimes need and utter the oft repeated phrase:

“That was rude. You need to try again.”

Sometimes the phrase gets repeated over and over and over and over, each time with a little coaching or encouragement or modeling. It is tedious, but I can’t expect my kids to know *how* to say something when they are frustrated if they don’t get the chance to practice it *when* they are frustrated.

Sometimes you need extra support.

If you are really struggling with this issue and you’ve tried all the typical approaches without making the headway you want, it may be worth getting some extra support. That may be from your village, a good parenting book, or a professional.

My friend Kathryn, a school psychologist, suggested a great book to try: What to Do When You Grumble Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Negativity. This is one book in a series that covers things like anger, worry, fairness, bad habits, and more. If these books, or ones like them, don’t help enough, find a child therapist who can help you and your child work through the causes and solutions.

If the grumps are always tied to your child’s hunger, mention it to your doctor. Mood changes associated with blood sugar swings are worth a medical discussion.


The ultimate answer to handling your child’s grumpiness is just as unique as each of our children. Remember, though, there are other moms in your village who have gone before you. Absorb their wisdom like a sponge and then do what is best for your child.

Stay calm in the midst of the turmoil that envelops your preteen. Keep being the steady hand that guides them into adulthood.

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