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Teach Your Child to Complain

If your child has a tendency to meltdown when things do not go the way he or she wants, it might be that your child needs to learn how to complain.   I have heard that complaining is what we do instead of making the effort to fix things.  Maybe so, but we can't fix everything and it is not wise to try.  It is good to have a coping strategy for when you don't like something but can't change it.

Adults complain a lot.  Just listen to the little chit chats all around you and you will notice that complaining is near universal so it must have a function.  Relief valve.  That is my guess.  For example, I don't actually want to tell my cousin that I will not take care of her dog while she goes for chemotherapy in another state, so I don't say a thing to her.  But, I do complain to others about all the things her dog has chewed up in my house.  We often complain instead of refusing or becoming overwhelmed.  Complaining is even one step less assertive than protesting. 

Imagine your child does not like playing Dodge Ball.  He or she might choose to complain about the game to a classmate. This is much better than refusing to play at all when the gym teacher barks out directions.  Your child feels better but does not get sent to the Principal office.

It would be nice if your child would do what he or she was suppose to do without complaining but really you want your child to be able to respond with the full range of positive and negative responses to life.  Complaining is one of the mild negative responses and these "shade of gray" emotional responses need to be taught because otherwise, most children with autism get stuck in an all or nothing emotional world.Think of complaining as a way of expressing how we feel but not letting this feeling dictate our behavior in every situation.

Complaining Words:

Here are some examples of phrases you can teach your child to use--probably by using these words yourself.  Be dramatic.  Use these words in situations when your child might be feeling annoyed or starting to become upset.

  • This is hard!  
  • I don’t like this.
  • Darn it!
  • I don’t want to…
  • Not so good.
  • kinda yucky!

To Which, You might Reply...

  • I know this is hard!  I know this is not your favorite thing! I know this is not something you don’t want to do! Yucky!
  • I will help you!
  • You are brave to do this.
  • I am proud of you because it is hard for you but you still do it.
  • Big boy/girl!
Note: You can reply with whatever might feel like an appropriate acknowledgment of the complaint. However, it is important not to allow your child's complaint to turn into a refusal.

Each Family Complains in a Unique Way

Listen to what you say in your family and exaggerate and demonstrate the kind of complaining that you do for your child.  Use appropriate versions that are short, easy to say, and not likely to get your child in trouble at school. 

If there are two people to help model complaining, even better!  One person can complain about an unpleasant task in front of your child.  The other person can sympathize.  The important things is that the complainer then clearly carries on with the unpleasant task in relatively good spirits.

 More ideas to teach complaining

For some situations, you may choose to explicitly teach your child that he or she can tell you when something is not pleasant and you will sympathize and he or she will do it anyway.  With some kids, you can discuss that sometimes we need to do unpleasant things, get along with unpleasant people, or continue after an unpleasant event, but verbal discussions can be a bit like water off a duck's back with children who have ASD.

Remember: Complaining is for situations that are hard but unavoidable.  It is important that your child does not end up avoiding the situation or you are actually teaching something different... refusal.  That's a whole 'nother story!