From Grumpy to Grateful: Helping Our Children CHANGE Their Thinking

From GRUMPY to Grateful: Helping Our CHILDREN CHANGE THEIR THINKING // Is a grumpy child just destined to be grumpy? Since his lip naturally turns downward and his arms easily fold and his body crumples, should we just give in and let him be a grump? Well, no. Just like anything else (how our kids approach their schoolwork, what sort of attitude they bring to family gatherings, how they respond when gifts are given, etc.), we can affect *not only* how our children behave, *but also* how they think.

 “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.”  ~Matthew 15:18-20


 “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” ~Romans 12:2


“Keep your heart with all vigilance,     for from it flow the springs of life.” ~Proverbs 4:23

The things we think in our hearts affect our reactions, our attitudes, and our choices. Kids need lots of help with this. Because (unlike what culture might say) kids are not a blank slate. They come to us with sinful hearts, and a generally selfish approach to life. Please understand that I am not unduly condemning children– this is true of every one of us. We all have to fight a self-ward focus in our hearts.

And in addition to just our general pull toward sin, we each have our own areas where we tend toward weakness. So with my children who are more naturally predisposed to grumping/ miserable/ discouraged/ defeatist thinking, I have learned that I have to do a lot of thought-supplying.

It’s basically teaching them how to biblically counsel their own hearts.

Let’s say we’re having rhubarb crisp (something I just made up and don’t even know if people eat), and one of my kids starts to act like it’s the worst meal ever, and he’s tearing up, asking questions like why does he have to eat it, and on and on… So I’ll say something like,

“Instead of thinking, “I HATE rhubarb crisp! I’ll just die if I have to eat it. Nothing will ever be good again if I have to eat it. I’m so mad. Sad. Angry. Grossed out.” (etc… whatever I actually think he’s thinking, based on what I know of my son and his words/phrases/reactions) … “What you SHOULD be thinking is, “God always gives us enough food. Daddy works so hard to provide for our family. Mama works hard to make good things for us. Even if this isn’t my favorite, I can eat it, drink water after every bite, and be thankful for the food God, Daddy, and Mama have put in front of me.

Even if I don’t like the taste of something, I can stop my heart from being selfish and instead, think about what other people have done for me. I can say something honest and kind afterward, like, ‘Thanks, Mom, for making this.'”

“You can also think things like, ‘Lots of people don’t love everything they eat, but we can still eat and be thankful. I don’t have to love it, and I don’t have to make the whole meal miserable. I can enjoy time with my family and try to smile and think about other pleasant things we’ve done today. I have a family that loves me and plenty of things to be grateful to God for.”

Then have the child list out 5 things he can be thankful for right now. Or 3, if you can already see his attitude changing. Or 10, if his attitude is just flat out rotten.

This is the process I take my natural-grumpers through semi-regularly.

Really, what’s it’s doing is teaching them how to counsel their own hearts and change their thinking when they get in a bad rut. Some of them need it more frequently than others, but it does seem to train them out of habitually thinking this way (for the most part) the older they get.

Of course, because this is a trait they came “out of the box” possessing, I have no doubt some will struggle for their whole lives. But instead of leaving them to flounder on their own, sulking in their bedroom, or trying to finagle a way out of the meal, I want to equip them with the tools that will help them master their rotten attitudes, for their whole lives. 

We all come with our in-built ‘bents’ toward sin (some criticize others internally, some are grumpy, some are depressive, some are manipulative, some are super-self-centered and attention-seeking, etc) but as moms we can help our children learn to biblically and truthfully counsel their own hearts against sinful attitudes that would captivate them for their whole lives.

IN THE COMMENTS, PLEASE SHARE: Have you tried this with your children? With yourself? 

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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast ( I write and wrangle kids.

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19 Responses

  1. Shannon says:

    Love this.

    I have one child in particular who is regularly negative. We had a recent conversation where I shared something I had read, “Let’s work on thinking about if you really had a bad day or just a bad five minutes.” I also have my kids go to their rooms when they are upset and have shared Psalm 4:4 “Be angry and do not sin. Ponder in your own hearts on your bed and be silent.” Just this week I challenged this particular child to continue going to her room when she is upset but to hold her tongue until she gets there. It is definitely a slow, step by step process.

    We have worked on gratitude, but this process you have laid out is so helpful. I like the idea of having the children practice gratitude in the midst of their bad attitude. However, I think with mine it would provoke her to anger if I do not provide her the time in her room to settle her heart first. I will have to try it out.

  2. Natalie Annillo says:

    The Lord is good!! We dealt with this exact issue just last night at dinner. We have a kiddo, much like me if I’m honest, that tends to lean toward negative thinking. This will be so helpful for him and myself.
    Thanks Jess for sharing this!! Praise Jesus!

  3. Karen says:

    Thanks for sharing how to encourage children not to be grumpy. I sometimes need to use those tactics on myself, to maintain an “attitude of gratitude.” By the way, one of our favorite family desserts is rhubarb crisp! All 4 children learned to love it from early ages, probably from watching their parents & older siblings savor it. The gratitude thing is catching, too.

  4. katy says:

    I encouraged my grumpy one to take some time by himself to calm down when he first started throwing fits (mainly out of frustration because he cant figure something out, whether in school or play when he’s trying to draw something or build something outside of his skill level). He has gotten to the point that he will sit on the stairs (which is where i encouraged him to calm down) but it will not calm him down. He dwells on it and just sinks even lower. I can see that is no longer helping so I’ll call him to me and talk about how he can choose to get over it (I’ll give him suggestions of how to do that – be thankful for x,y,orz…try doing this instead of that…ask for help, etc.) or he can choose to sit there all day but it is his choice. He is making himself miserable! I don’t know how to help him ‘snap out of it’. maybe i’m just being too vague in my suggestions…? Thoughts? He is 7 but I can see the same ‘bent’ in my 4yo as well.

    • Jess Connell says:

      This is why I don’t think it’s a good idea to send our kids off by themselves. Rather than giving them wise counsel, it’s actually letting them counsel themselves with their own foolishness. Unless they have God’s Word memorized so they can actively meditate on it, we set them up for failure when we send them off to sort things out on their own.

      This is why having them sit in front of me and watching them, helping, counseling them, on how to change their attitude and then seeing to it that they do, is my preference. I intermingle these instructions with physical tasks. “While you’re taking the bathroom trash to dump in the main trash I want you to think up two things to be thankful for and come back and tell them to me.” Etc.

      A child left to himself is almost never a good thing… Especially when the child is already feeling & behaving negatively.

      • katy says:

        so that whole ‘think of 3 things that you’re thankful for’ works for you? my kids just say ‘i can’t think of anything’. i will give examples and then ask them to give me some. i’ll give them time to think…this goes on for a LOOONG time and almost always ends in tears. it’s like, they are in their ‘funk’ and they can’t turn their brains around to think positive things. i assume i just need to stick with it, rather than leave them in their funk but just wondering if that works well for you. btw, we talk alllll the time about things to be thankful for throughout the day so it’s not like we only do it when they’re ina bad mood :)

        • Jess Connell says:

          When they are little, say, 5 and under, I often have to supply the first few. Then after that, I prompt them- “look around the room and name 2 things you can see that you are thankful for.” “Now what are two things outside on the porch you are thankful for?” Etc.

          There does come a time though where it is stubbornness, rather than inability to think creatively, that drives their lack of ability to come up with things. At that point I might supply one but then it becomes a matter of obedience. This is a thought exercise we do together. Not rude, not angry, but they don’t have the option NOT to participate or engage with their mom. So if I’m certain that they’re able and just being a stubborn pill about it, it becomes a matter of discipline rather than merely a discussion.

          The discipline is not for the lack of list, but for a stubborn resistant heart to mom. I often find that they can come up with things quite well once they realize I really mean they have to and it’s not just optional.

  5. Kristie says:

    This is great! I need to do this with myself more often than when I get the grumps (which is all too often, if I’m honest!). My oldest will be 3 in September, so he’s still quite young. Do you have any advice with how to implement this with little ones? I try to ask him what he’s thankful for and sometimes he has a good long list and sometimes he just says very candidly (and crankily!) “nothing!” Usually I tell him he’s got lots to be thankful for and list things off myself. Also, do you have any advice with how to deal with frustration? My husband is a very hard worker but tends towards perfectionism and gets frustrated when things don’t go quite right (he’d be the first to admit this!), and it’s CRAZY how much I see that my son already has those same tendencies. He gets SO frustrated when he’s playing and can’t get things to work the way he wants them to. It’s so not my personality— I just want him to shrug it off and move on (especially when it’s something that just doesn’t work!). I’m not quite sure how to encourage the positive of this personality type (persistence, hard work, etc.) while counseling him not to get quite so bent out of shape when things don’t work his way. He IS only 1, but I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing now, let alone as he gets older! Thanks!

    • Beth says:

      It’s good that you recognize these tendencies in yourself and your little ones! But be encouraged–they are still so little, and their reasoning ability and capacity to understand is very limited at this age. I have a 1 year old who gets very frustrated, very quickly. But he’s my #4, so I have the advantage of knowing that when he’s older and able to understand, we can work on these things. Right now we distract him from his frustration, help him (if we can) to get things working, or show him how to do it himself. We can see that this is something he’ll struggle with, and we watch and wait for opportunities to address it as his understanding increases.

      One of the hardest things for me as a mom is taking the long view of correction–knowing that little by little, our children will be corrected over time. I tend to feel panicky when I see behavior issues cropping up, but the Lord has so much patience with me, and that encourages and strengthens me to show the same patience with my children.

      • Jess Connell says:

        I agree! When they’re little, it’s sooooooo all about observation and getting to know your child. It’s awesome that you’re seeing these things, watching, and considering how to help him…

        You can try different ways to see what helps him. One thing that helps my kids like that is for me to distract them, snuggle them, love on them, make them giggle by doing something silly, (later that looks like: encourage them to take a deep breath, wash off their face, try to calm down/relax in other ways), and then try the frustrating thing again (immediately). But, try different things! Do try to (as he gets older especially) help him push through that initial “ugly” reaction… and (as Beth said) patiently, over time, help him… encourage him… bolster him in this area where you are seeing weakness.

  6. Katie says:

    This is the same type of process I go through with my four year old daughters. I’ll admit it seems to be a hit or miss, because getting them to really look away from themselves can be very difficult. At what age do you really begin to see this type of thinking sink in so that it isn’t a major ordeal every time someone complains?

    • Jess Connell says:

      Honestly? It’s a daily/weekly process… for years… but these things are never once and done. I would say they start doing this (some) on their own maybe between 7-9 but sometimes I still have to prompt it. When I think about how many sulky, gripe-focused, self-gazing adults there are in the world, I remember that many many many of us have these tendencies and I am not fighting an easy battle (like how to tie shoes)… this is a character trait, and something I am continually sowing seeds for, but God has to give the increase and bring it to fruit in their hearts and lives.

      Motherhood is always about the long haul. And the more we encourage them to learn to think biblically and see the world through that framework, the more we are giving them the right lens through which to see their entire world.

  7. Brittany says:

    I use a similar written process with my 8 year old, when he’s really upset or has a hard time letting go of something. We write out what’s replaying in his mind. Then we decide if that’s true or false (or only partially true). If it’s true, then we talk about what we can do about it–pray, talk to the person who was unkind, etc. If it’s only partially true or false, we cross it out and replace it with the truth, often with a verse that relates. Then we pray about it together, and he can tell himself the truth (or I can remind him) if he starts to get upset over it again. He is a lot like me, and this is what helps me! Writing seems to help both of us concretely “see” what’s upsetting us and deal with it appropriately.

    I like that this can be used on the fly though, making it easier to incorporate into life! I’ll have to try this for smaller things and my younger, non-writing grumpsters. :)

    • Michelle Gourley says:

      Brittany, we use that language too: “what is upsetting you? Is it true? What true things can we say about this situation?”
      I think of this as similar to what Jess is saying about teaching them to biblically counsel their own hearts (since often times what upsets us are lies we are believing).

  8. Diana says:

    Thanks, Jess! I’m printing this one off for my parenting notebook. This is what I try to do with our children, but my challenge is my OWN attitude when this happens – because usually when it does happen, I’m so upset by the child’s attitude/ingratitude that I am losing my own temper and am lecturing harshly instead of constructively. My eldest tends to be quite picky with food, so this is something that definitely needs to be addressed.


    • Jess Connell says:

      I honestly think this whole thing (of us working on the kids, day in, day out) is one of the very best ways God finally gets through to us and shows us… SEE? See what it’s like? SEE how stubborn you are? SEE how many times I have to remind you? SEE how helpless and foolish you are on your own? See how much you need Me?

      It’s like synergy: the whole process of counseling my children with truth has made me better at counseling myself with truth, and vice-versa… the better I get at telling myself the truth, patiently, wisely, effectively… the better I get at telling THEM the truth.

  9. Anna says:

    What do you do when you do this process but a child refuses to let go of it internally? I have done what you describe MANY times with my 5 yo. It corrects his attitude for the moment, but inwardly he still holds a grudge and will bring up the matter a day later…a week later…or even longer…no matter how trivial it is. I have noticed that he has an entitlement mentality and is firmly convinced that he deserves to be treated however he wants, given whatever he wants, etc. I do not know where this came from. I have tried to correct him every time and win every battle, and far from showing improvement, he is actually getting more and more difficult and more and more sulky/whiny/arguing. I am running out of energy to battle a child who will fight every little thing tooth and nail all day every day with no sign of ever relenting.

    • Jess Connell says:

      Yes this all sounds really normal, honestly. Before knowing Christ, we really are all so self ward and easily embittered and hold onto hurts. Even after knowing Christ, so many of us struggle with these same things…

      refusing to let go of hurts, feeling entitled, convinced that we deserve more than we do, etc.

      Keep going, don’t lose heart and don’t give up. He needs for you to keep calling out his sin and pointing him toward the Savior who can help him. When he embraces the Savior, he will have the Spirit within him, and you will not be working alone! Pray for him, keep going, and don’t give up! Speak the truth to him about who he is, and about Who he needs. Your work feels tireless… but in light of eternity, it will be worth it!

    • Jess Connell says:

      Also- keep explaining the concept of forgiveness. This could be a major “win” in his life, long-term, for him to learn what it means to forgive and not keep bringing up hurts/grudges.

      And the fact that you say- “he is actually getting more and more difficult and more and more sulky/whiny/arguing” – means (to me) that you are taking on a GOOD battle. Things often get harder before they get better. It’s because you’re noticing it, and he’s feeling it… so he fights back harder, and you feel like you’re fighting harder than ever (and both things are true!).

      So don’t give up. It sounds to me like you’ve chosen, and taken on, a GOOD battle for his heart… not WITH his heart, but FOR his heart. Keep going!

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