Q. I have twin daughters of six years old. One of them never follows instructions or does what she is told. She will spend ages debating, being cheeky and arguing when you ask her something, and it can be very tiring. As a result, I find myself getting really annoyed at her. When she does not get what she wants, she begins to cry and scream. We put her outside the room to get her to stop but she keeps coming back in. Then she asks for a hug in order to stop crying and screaming.
To be honest, I don’t feel like hugging her at this point, but even when we do she can still cry and scream. These tantrums seem to last hours. She is very different to her sister who is much more amenable and quieter. Even though they are twins, they often don’t get on and she seems to be jealous of her sister. She seems to behave like this only at home: the teacher says she is not like that at school. We are not sure how best to discipline her and to manage this.
A. Talking back, arguing and cheek from children is a very common problem and one that parents find particularly troublesome and challenging. Some children are more feisty or oppositional than others and find it harder to be told what to do. Thus, they are more likely to argue their point. A lot of parents report as you do how rows can start out small and then escalate into screaming and shouting, which is upsetting for both parent and child.
However, there is a lot you can do differently to help your daughter. Most of these arguments are two-way – it takes two to argue and the argument cannot continue unless the parent has been hooked into arguing back.
While it is, of course, important to explain to a child the purpose of a rule or the reason you have said “no” to a request, many parents make the mistake of continuing to explain or reason with their child for too long, which in the end actually fuels the row.
The most important discipline rule is the “rule of respect”, which means that any time a child becomes disrespectful – for example, by being cheeky or argumentative – you must stop the discussion and address this lack of respect.
Let’s look at an example step by step: if you have to say no to your daughter, it is important to first give a brief explanation – “No you can’t go out now as we are about to have dinner”. It can also help if you focus her on a time when she can get what she wants – “You can’t go out now, but you will be able to go out later if you are behaving well”.
If your daughter argues the point, you may listen to her feelings while she remains polite – “I know you want to go out now, but dinner will be over in a short while” – but if the argument is prolonged or if she becomes disrespectful, then you immediately interrupt the discussion – “You are being rude by arguing now . . . no more discussion” – and then you move on.
If your daughter continues to argue, then you warn her of a consequence – “If you continue to argue now, you will have to stay in longer after dinner” – or insist she takes a time out – “You will have to sit outside the room for a few minutes until you calm down”.
The key in dealing with the opposition is to remain calm and polite, to interrupt the row earlier rather than later, and to use consequences and action rather than angry words to deal with escalation.
After a break, if your daughter comes back to you for a hug to help her calm down, it is important to respond positively. At six years of age, she is still very young and only learning the difficult task of managing her feelings.
Soothing her gently will help her learn how to calm herself as well as helping her feel connected to you. You want to give her the message that you love her, but that you don’t like the cheeky behaviour. The aim is to find a way of disciplining her that does not cause her to feel rejected, but continues to make her feel secure.
There are lots of other things you can do to prevent oppositional rows in the future, such as having a clear routine so your daughter knows the rules and what needs to happen in advance. Also, it is quite likely that your daughter, like many children who oppose their parents, finds it hard not to be in control.
You can help her by giving her as many choices and as much control as possible in everyday decisions, particularly at flashpoints (for example, “You can wear either the blue or green coat going out”). Another thing that can help is to encourage her independence and to teach her the everyday tasks that may cause conflict, such as showing her how to tidy or to take responsibility for her room.
A significant issue in your situation is also the fact that she is a twin and might be perceived differently to her sister. It is easy to see her as the “troublesome one” and her sister as the “amenable one”, but such comparisons aggravate the problems.
They make your daughter more likely to live up to the negative descriptions, as well as making her more resentful of her sister and causing tension between them.
The key to avoiding these problems is to think of your daughter in a different light, seeing her as “spirited”, “feisty” or “having a great independent streak” and making sure to enjoy and appreciate her positive qualities.
Simple things, such as making sure to spend one-to-one time with her doing something you both enjoy, will make all the difference and reduce the behavioural problems you experience.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, April 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.