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Dr. Wolf: My child’s the king of sulkers and I don’t know how to deal with it

A sulking child can be unpleasant to be around.

Seven-year-old DeShawn and his father were finishing their supper. It was time for dessert. Unfortunately there were no more strawberry ice-cream cups left. Only the chocolate ones.

“I’m sorry, DeShawn.”

“Then you have to go to the store.”

“No, I’m not going to the store. But I will get some more strawberry ones next time I’m there.”

“But you have to go now.”

“No, DeShawn, I’m sorry.”

At which point, DeShawn goes into a sulk.

From a child’s standpoint, sulking is an especially wonderful technique because you can get revenge with very little effort. Sulking works because most parents do feel badly. They love their child, and it does pain them to see their child suffer. Which is why sulkers don’t storm out of the room. They want their misery to be seen.

What not to do

Offer alternatives: “Come on, try a chocolate one. Sometimes you like the chocolate ones, too. You’ll see.”

This is fine and sometimes works. But don’t try too hard, for if rejected, it will just deepen the sulk. DeShawn pulls further into his chair and gives his most ferocious glower.

Give understanding: “I’m sorry, I know you’re disappointed. You really wanted the strawberry ice-cream cup.”

This is good and is always worth trying. But again, don’t spend a lot of time on it. Early on, if not successful, your effort starts working against you.

DeShawn just continues his glower.

Try to jolly him out of it: “Come on, DeShawn. Just a little smile.”

Sulkers love this one. It feeds the sulk. DeShawn sinks even deeper into his chair.

Berating: “You just better watch it, young man. There are lots of children in the world who would give anything to be so lucky as you.”

This never works. Again, it only feeds the sulking.

DeShawn slides out of his chair and is now sitting under the table.

What to do

The good thing about sulking is that there is an easy solution that works.

Go about your business in a friendly manner and don’t try to accomplish anything about the sulking. Do nothing to it.

If the sulking isn’t getting anything – nothing – gradually it goes away. And DeShawn, with a big dose of nothing, ultimately decides that since he is kind of hungry for dessert, maybe he will have the chocolate.

“It’s disgusting. I don’t like it.”

But DeShawn does finish all of the chocolate ice cream in the cup.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I’d Listen to My Parents If They’d Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at [email protected].

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