As a mom (of three) and a stepmom (of another three), I have plenty of examples of things kids do that drive me up the wall. At any given moment, it's reasonable to assume that one of our brood is playing with their food, talking in a baby voice, complaining about anything and everything, or whining that they're "sooo bored."
This stuff is annoying, and the moment I feel a pang of irritation directed at my kid, I also feel a pang of parental guilt. But the good news is it's completely normal to find your child annoying. "Dealing with whininess, tantrums, interrupting behaviors, baby talk, or any regressive behaviors is naturally frustrating for a parent," says licensed professional counselor Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD.
In moments of peak irritation, it might help to remember that there's usually a motivation behind your child's most frustrating behavior. "When kids are engaging in a certain type of behavior, they are getting one of four things out of it: attention, escape, sensory stimulation, or some other tangible reward," explains child psychologist Jessica Myszak. "This is often called the 'function' of the behavior."
Once you identify the the function of the behavior, you have two options: actively address it, or completely ignore it. Let's go through these four different functions one by one:
"Attention doesn't even have to come from a parent — it could be from a sibling, and a reaction as subtle as a snort, giggle, or sigh is often enough to keep a child engaged in what they're doing," Myszak says. "If you don't give in and give them the attention or reward they are seeking, the behavior will go away after a little while," she says.
Indeed, if you know your child is just trying to get a rise out of you, the "do nothing" approach often works, because you're not giving your child the very thing they're chasing. But it's important to be aware that when you ignore a behavior, it sometimes gets worse before it gets better. "Kids essentially dig in their heels to try harder to get your reaction before they give it up, so be prepared for this," Myszak warns.
Of course, kids also use their annoying habits to get out of stuff they just don't want to do. "If you tell your child to pick up their toys and they make annoying noises to the point that you tell them to just go to their room … well, they just got out of picking up their toys," Myszak says.
The phrase "sensory stimulation" simply refers to something that feels good. "If your child is doing something that feels good to them, they will want to continue doing it," Myszak says. If you've ever wondered why your kid gets such a kick out of flipping over the couch, blowing and popping big bubbles, or constantly scratching an itch, this is why. In this case, ignoring the behavior is unlikely to work, since your reaction isn't really what they're looking for. Myszak suggests giving them some rules or guidelines for certain behaviors, or providing a less-annoying alternative that would elicit the same good feeling.
Sometimes parents' efforts to stop their kids' annoying behaviors might inadvertently encourage them. Think about the last time your kid played up and you gave them the iPad to get them to stop. (No judgment here — we've all done it!) You might have bought yourself 10 minutes of precious quiet time, but you've also taught your child that if they do something that frustrates you, they might get rewarded with screen time.
Of course, this is not a one-size-fits-all assessment. It's worth remembering that some displays of immature behavior stem from developmental lags that require a little direct teaching and positive reinforcement, Capanna-Hodge says. Some children may be more sensitive to their environment and have higher sensory needs that can cause them to feel irritated, which results in immature or "annoying" behaviors. In this case, appropriate sensory input, as well as structure and routine, will help.
But there's no real way around it: Kids are annoying by nature. They're loud, they're kind of gross, they ask the same questions and tell the same stories over and over again. These are all normal behaviors of a growing young person, but that doesn't mean they don't grate on our adult nerves: As we get older we crave quiet, we like things to be tidy, and sometimes our patience wears thin.
Reflecting on what's motivating the really annoying stuff could provide you with some helpful insights.
"Maybe we are overwhelmed and our children are trying to communicate with us through these attention seeking behaviors," Capanna-Hodge suggests. "Maybe our child needs more direct support from us and we're just not connecting to what they need. These are the kind of questions we should be thinking about, which not only helps us to break the behavioral cycle but also gets us out of feeling annoyed because we know how to take action."
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