Parenting with a PhD: Appropriate Complaints

Teach Your Kids to Complain!

By: Kristen Berthiaume

The punch line for this title is, of course, that your kids already know how to complain. They practice. All. Of. The. (Expletive deleted). Time. But, complaining appropriately is actually a skill that may not come naturally and a really important one to master. Without the ability to complain, how would you let your boss know if a co-worker is creating a hostile environment? How would you tell your spouse that he has to cool it with the whistling? Even though I’m sure you’re a lovely person, you complain multiple times every day. Or, at least I do. But, there’s a huge difference in those whiny (them), nagging (us) complaints that are usually answered with annoyance or irritated silence and appropriate complaints that are likely to get actual results.

There are many reasons a kid may need to complain (and probably more where they need to just hush): her teacher added points wrong on a test, dinner is too cold to eat, or her shoes don’t fit. By helping your child complain about situations like these, you’re teaching her that she can speak up for herself, that it’s O.K. (and often very helpful) to address problems she’s having with others head-on, and that she is worth being treated with respect. These will be invaluable lessons for her – especially once she hits adulthood! Help your child learn to identify situations that do warrant a complaint by asking herself: Is this a regular or major problem for me or someone else? Have I tried to fix the problem on my own but can’t? Is this a situation that could turn dangerous? Once your child has determined that a complaint will be necessary, have her brainstorm about the best way to address the problem with someone. When the other person is busy or available? (Answer: available!) When everyone is calm or upset? (Answer: calm!) In private or in public? (Answer: private!).

Although many parents feel that children should get what they get (and don’t throw a fit), there are situations where complaining is truly crucial and there could be significant consequences of keeping quiet. If we teach our kids to blindly follow authority, even when something doesn’t feel right, we put them and others at risk for mistreatment and abuse. There may be serious issues your child needs to complain about some day – a kid bullying him, a friend cutting herself, violence in a relationship, or an adult asking to see private body parts. We want to make it really clear to our kids that they must speak up if something isn’t right or if someone is in danger, and that they won’t get in trouble for it. From the day-to-day situations that your child finds frustrating to the major problems that need to be addressed quickly and by a trusted adult, sometimes complaining is the best decision.

Try the “3 Fs” formula for teaching your child the right way to complain: FACT+ FEELING + FAIR REQUEST.

The FACT is what has happened or is happening that your child is unhappy or concerned about. For example, “Mom, Jake keeps changing the channel when I’m trying to watch something…” Notice the total absence of words like, “stupid,” “jerk,” and “annoying” in this statement. The FEELING is self-explanatory: “…and I feel really frustrated.” It’s important to point out that the other person’s behavior isn’t making your child feel a certain way – it’s just a result. The FAIR REQUEST is what your child wants you or the other person to do/not do/do differently next time. “Can you ask him to give me the remote and find something else to do?”

Kids sometimes need several attempts at this – especially the FAIR REQUEST part – “Can you send him to live with the neighbors?” is not quite what we’re going for. Help guide the request toward something reasonable and have your child keep a back-up plan in mind, just in case the first idea doesn’t work out. “Can I watch T.V. in your room?” might work better.

So, all put together, an appropriate complaint might look like this (please imagine in your child’s least whiny, most mature voice):

“Mom (only one syllable), Jake keeps changing the channel when I’m trying to watch something and I feel really frustrated. Can you ask him to give me the remote and find something else to do or can I watch T.V. in your room?”

Once your child knows the formula for making appropriate complaints, it’s time to practice. First – and very importantly – you’ll need to model the new skill. If you’re nagging/begging/screaming at your child to clean her room, you’re not complaining about the messy room in an appropriate way and might be teaching your child to whine or yell. Try this: “I noticed that you haven’t cleaned your room up yet and I asked you to get that done last night. I’m frustrated that it isn’t done. Please get off of the computer now and clean your room.”

Follow up with consequences, positive (return to the computer) or bad (no more computer for the night), as necessary. Second, find a fun way for your kids to practice appropriate complaints. In my Social Skills Group, we play “Complaint Jeopardy” where I read a problematic situation and kids have to buzz in (using a host of hilarious noises they come up with) to give an appropriate
complaint for that situation. Third, when your child complains in an inappropriate way, praise his effort but ask him to re-phrase the complaint. “Thank you for telling me that your brother stole your markers – I want to help you with that. Let’s try the complaint you had again using our 3 Fs so we can come up with a plan.”

If he can’t use the formula, do it for him. Explain how the formula gives you the information to know what’s wrong, how he feels about it, and what he would like for you to do. Continue to give gentle reminders about appropriate complaints and don’t act on the complaint until an appropriate complaint is used. Obviously, if your child is really upset, she probably won’t be able to follow the formula at first. Help her calm down and then try again. Finally, when you hear your child making an appropriate complaint (or at least attempting it), be sure to give praise. Tell her how the complaint was very clear and helped you to figure out what she needed. If possible, try to be appreciative if your child points out that you aren’t using the 3 Fs formula – provided that he complains about your complaint appropriately (wink).

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

About Kristen:

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her daughters, ages seven and one, and four-year-old son.

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