Q: My daughter is five and a half. She’s smart, deep and popular with her friends and teachers. She can be loads of fun and still knows how to be a child as she should at her tender age. Her biggest problems stem from control and anger. It’s a bit complicated and, of course, both my wife and I are complicit in her behaviour as we’re not perfect and, as you know, parenting is an ever evolving lesson in life.
Her behaviour is very different depending on who she is with. When she is alone with me, she dresses herself, feeds herself and does not want me to help her at all. She can be quite rude to me and won’t accept much affection from me. We play together a lot, and we have a relatively good level of communication between us.
When my wife is with us, she acts out at me a lot more, makes faces at me, raises her voice, can basically be downright rude. No matter my reaction – loving, stern, silly – nothing works, she just wants her mother and nothing else.
Her relationship with her mother is complicated. My wife is no pushover, full of love and fiercely straightforward with her. However, she has little tolerance for crying and screaming, and will do almost anything to stop the extreme behaviour and there is a big part of the problem.
My daughter takes complete advantage of this fact and demands unrealistic attention and will scream, whimper, cry – whatever it takes – to get what she wants and has admitted this to us on many occasions. What she wants is extreme.
She wants my wife to dress her, feed her, carry her but, more intensely, she orders her to speak certain ways. If my wife doesn’t say exactly what she says, how she wants her to say it, she will persist in her crying and screaming.
Again, my wife is no pushover, but she feels helpless to deal with this extreme behaviour and I feel helpless because if I try to intervene it gets worse.
One more thing is that our daughter is extremely stubborn and has been since the day she was born. When people tell you to let the baby cry it out, she would outcry you until she got what she wanted, so she’s fundamentally been this way since day one. We assumed she would out grow it and perhaps she still will.
A: It strikes me that the core pattern in your daughter’s misbehaviour is captured in your last paragraph when you say that as a baby “she would outcry you until she got what she wanted, so she’s fundamentally been this way since day one”.
The core problem here is that the exchange feels like a battle of wills and at the end of it you feel unhappy and that you have lost. At five years of age, once you or your wife get into the habit of “giving in” to her tantrums or screaming, your daughter will naturally continue to use these strategies to get her own way.
Further, once the exchange ends in a way that you or your wife feel you have lost, this leads you to feeling resentful and angry towards your daughter.
Your daughter is likely to pick up on this, feel rejected and insecure and thus be more likely to further act up. It strikes me that your daughter feels particularly insecure with your wife and this is why she clings to her at the tantrum times (though this clinging leads to further problems for her).
Changing the pattern of misbehaviour
These patterns tend to be at the basis of many serious behaviour problems, but the good news is that with patience and persistence they can be broken.
The first step is that you and your wife need to develop an action plan to get through a bout of extreme behaviour in a way that does not leave you or your wife feeling angry or resentful but instead allows you both to be calm.
Such an action plan is very particular to individual parents and children though it includes strategies such as distracting and soothing your daughter when she is upset, coaching her to manage her feelings, taking a break from the interaction, patiently ignoring the tantrum or waiting for her to calm down as well as using clear consequences and choices.
The key is always to be calm in your own responses and to make whatever your daughter wants in the argument dependent on her behaving well.
This is often best phrased in a “when-then” instruction – “When you calm down, then you will be able to go out,” “When you ask me with a nice voice, then I will carry you a little bit,” or “When you put your trousers on, then Mum will help you with your top.”
This means that you “give in” to your daughter only when she has co-operated to some degree and this changes the basic nature of the interaction.
Rule of Respect
At the moment, the most important rule to concentrate on with your daughter is respect. Don’t get hooked into the particulars of an argument and instead insist on politeness – “You need to speak politely to you mum now,” “You are not to talk to me rudely as your father,” or “We can go out only when you are calm.”
You need to model and ask for respectful communication from her at every turn and this is the key to helping her change.
Changing behaviour problems requires patience and hard work, and I appreciate I can make only one or two points in a short answer. Do seek more support and contact your daughter’s school, your GP or public health nurse for details of local services
In the mean time I will send you my book, Positive Parenting , which outlines a step-by-step approach to overcoming behaviour problems.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, February 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.