“You can’t choose your parents,” the saying goes—but as those parents will tell you, you can’t choose your kids, either. Some are naturally sweet. Others possess endless curiosity. And sometimes a kid is just, well, kind of a jerk. Luckily, there are ways to dial back dickishness before you have a full-grown tool on your hands, but early intervention is key.
Here are five red flags that you might be raising an asshole, and ways to address each:
1. They’re past the terrible twos and threenagerdom…and are still buttheads.
Many normal developmental behaviors are unpleasant, and some can read to an adult like intentional nastiness. We’re talking about classic stuff, like testing (don’t you love when they stare you down as they do what you just asked them not to?) or irrational freak-outs (you bought a red hoodie instead of blue?!? May God have mercy on your soul). But these don’t qualify as assholery. If you’re raising a kid who’s five or under, it’s too soon to make a call on their personality, since it’s currently eclipsed by the constant learning and dot-connecting they have to do to figure out the world. (It’s hard work—you’d be cranky, too.)
What to Do: If you’re raising a kindergartener or younger, chill: the jerkiness is likely temporary. But if your kid is older and still treats people like garbage, read on.
2. They seem to lack empathy.
A playground bully pushes someone down and your kid laughs (or, worse, they’re the pusher). When you tell your child that they’ve hurt you or a sibling, they show little remorse. And you’re not especially eager to leave them alone with the cat…
What to Do: Don’t freak out and assume your kid is a psychopath—this is not a We Need to Talk About Kevin situation. Just as kids who struggle with pronunciation may benefit from speech therapy, other kids possess what are known as callous-unemotional traits and may need extra emotional training. These children may not easily register the facial expressions, body language, or words people use to indicate pain or sadness, but coaching can help them learn to better recognize these indicators and respond to them more appropriately. Try talking about emotions as they come up—“You seemed angry earlier”—and how to deal with them. The more they recognize their own feelings, the better equipped they are to read others’.
3. They fight you on every. Stupid. Little. Thing.
While it’s tempting to dismiss combativeness as a kid being “spirited” or “feisty”—or to daydream about your little arguer becoming a high-powered attorney—chronic pushback is a sign of inflexibility, which is what you see in folks who, say, refuse to let you merge or regularly scream at cashiers. (Or become ideological extremists. Yikes.) A kid who can’t make peace with life’s inevitable give and take grows up to be an adult who can’t, either.
What to Do: Kids who relish arguing crave one thing: control. Don’t give it to them. State your request simply, making the consequences of noncompliance clear, and don’t engage with refusals. Also, ramp up praise when your kid does as they’re asked, and avoid opening yourself to bickering: instead of suggestions (“Can you brush your teeth?”), use commands (“Brush your teeth, please”). Most importantly, stay calm. To a kid looking to exert control, a parent getting angry means they’ve won. And your anger won’t help, anyway: research shows that kids are more likely to improve poor conduct with positive reinforcement than they are thanks to an authoritarian clampdown.
4. Their friends are assholes.
It’s true that mild-mannered kids often have a baffling tendency to glom onto the class punk. But if your child’s friend group routinely winds up on the wrong side of teachers and principals (or, gulp, the law), it may be that you’re witnessing birds of a feather flocking together.
What to Do: Several studies show that establishing and sustaining friendships requires strong interpersonal skills—and empathy is chief among them. So, if your kid can’t read people’s emotions (as discussed above), you may find that they struggle to make friends—and that can lead them to sidle up to whomever is available, even real dickheads. But working on your kid’s social acuity can help, so put them in more situations where they interact with (nice) kids. Also, have your child tell you what a “good friend” looks like, then compare what they’ve described to their current crew. Ask them: How does being around these kids reflect on you? Can you be sure they won’t get you into trouble? If you’ve seen them be unkind to others, can you trust that they won’t turn on you, too? Chances are your kid will realize that there’s no loyalty among jerks—and let these “friendships” fall away.
5. They’re selfish.
All young children are selfish to a degree—picture them getting antsy when a visiting friend touches their toys, and you’ll get the idea. In fact, research shows that until age six, kids aren’t developmentally capable of much generosity. But if your child is well past that age and can’t seem to share, compromise, or think of the greater good, that’s a problem.
What to Do: Make sure you’re modeling selflessness and telling your child it’s a value your family holds dear. “We look out for each other,” you might say, or “We treat others as we’d like to be treated.” In addition, build on instances of “prosocial” (cooperative, helpful, and kind) behavior in your child—if you see them being selfless, talk up that achievement. This helps selflessness become self-perpetuating: It’s been shown that if kids perform charitable acts, they begin to see themselves as generous and compassionate and act accordingly.
Of course, this is all in good fun—no kid is really an asshole, just a struggling little person in need of an extra nudge. If you’re seeing any of these behaviors, address them swiftly and consistently, and if they persist, talk to your child’s pediatrician about whether further help is warranted. But above all, take it easy. Knowing is half the battle, so if you’re aware that your child’s behavior is problematic, chances are good that they’ll turn out just fine.