Dealing with difficult grown-ups

Dr. Ramey is the Executive Director of Dayton Children’s Center for Pediatric Mental Health Resources and can be contacted at

Some adults don’t treat children very nicely. Kids can get overwhelmed by a basketball coach who constantly humiliates his players, or a teacher who makes sarcastic comments to her class.

Many parents adopt a hands-off approach to these situations, advising kids that they’ll need to adjust to the reality that not everyone will treat them kindly. Other parents intervene, confronting the adult about their offensive behavior. Either approach may be appropriate, but by the preteen years it’s important to teach kids how to deal on their own with difficult people.

Here’s how I do this in my office.

1. Understand another’s perspective. This is tough for kids, as it is for adults. I challenge children to assume the role of the offending grown up and try to understand the adult’s point of view. Some kids who play sports are oversensitive to criticisms by their coach. Perhaps the adult’s behavior is prompted by the frustration of trying to help talented but unmotivated kids.

I never justify offensive behavior. I’m just trying to help young people better understand another’s point of view.

2. Teach assertiveness skills. My goal is to help kids learn how to talk directly with difficult grown-ups. Children know that adults have most of the power in these situations, and they are afraid of retribution in the classroom or on an athletic field.

Being assertive is not only what you say but when and how you say it. Timing is key. I advise kids to set up a specific time when they can talk in private with the adult.

I also suggest that young people play the “parent card” to put the offensive adult on notice. “I spoke with my parents about history class, and they suggested I speak directly with you about my concerns.” This makes it less likely that the adult will abruptly dismiss a child’s concerns.

I advise kids not to whine or overgeneralize. Come up with a few specific suggestions as to what you’d like to see different. If you can honestly do so, say something positive.

I work hard to prepare kids for a variety of possible reactions. Saying what you think and feel to someone in authority is risky. I warn kids of possible rejection of their concerns. “I scream at you because you never listen to my coaching” is a common “blame the victim” approach used by ineffective adults.

We all occasionally say inappropriate things to kids, but don’t teach your child to tolerate abusive or offensive behavior by anyone. Helping them manage these relationships is a skill they’ll need forever.

Next Week: Why are American parents unhappier than childless couples?