Bad behaviour: Our girl is a street angel and a house devil

My 12-year-old daughter is making all our lives hell at home. She has always been fiery and prone to dramatic meltdowns and flying off the handle. But it has become much worse this year since she started secondary school.

The funny thing is that outside the home she is sweetness and light. Her last primary-school teachers saw her as a co-operative, hardworking girl who could make lots of friends and this seems to be the same in the new school.

But at home it is a different story: she constantly argues back and can throw tantrums that last an evening. She speaks to my husband and me as if we are dirt and can be really hurtful in what she says.

She has two younger brothers and an older sister, who is 14, to whom she can be particularly cruel: the older girl is the complete opposite to her, being really gentle. Her two younger brothers, who are eight and 10, are scared of her when she gets into one of her moods.

We seem to be always tiptoeing around her, waiting for her next explosion, and everyone is miserable. What can we do?

For some children the start of the teenage years can be a particularly challenging time. With big increases in their hormone levels, and changes to their bodies and minds, young teenagers can experience their emotions much more intensely.

For parents this can feel a bit like a rollercoaster as you try to deal with teenage moods and challenges. It can be particularly difficult if you already experienced your child as fiery and emotional when they were younger as these behaviours can experience a new intensity as they enter the teenage years.

The good news is that this period can often be a phase and with patience as well as firm parenting you can help your daughter, and the family, get through to that they gain new levels of awareness at the other end.

Tune into what is going on for your daughter
It can really help if you try to empathise with what is going on for your daughter. Are there things that she is finding particularly hard?

For example, many children can feel under a lot of pressure with the transition to secondary school, when more demands are placed upon them. In addition, she may be struggling with peer groups, making friends and so on that might all add to her upset.

It also strikes me that she might feel like the odd one out at home. As she has a different personality to her sister, who she might perceive as the favourite, this might make her more competitive and isolated, and explain some of her anger towards her sister.

Agree a plan with her about she deals with her upset
Pick a good time to discuss things with her. First try to encourage her to talk about what is going on for her – “You seem to be more than usually upset recently” – and listen carefully to what she says.

Then acknowledge with her that whatever is going on, and whatever she is feeling, it is not okay for her to take out her negative feelings on everyone at home.

Emphasise the important rule that everyone in the family must speak respectfully to each other.

Try to explore other strategies that she can use when she is upset. For example, explore how she might take a pause when she feels herself getting upset or that she might learn to describe how she is feeling using words rather than getting angry.

The long-term goal is to try and teach her to manage her feelings and frustrations and upset, and to learn to talk about how she is feeling without hurting anyone.

Have a plan of action for dealing with meltdowns
Her meltdowns are not going to disappear overnight. The key is to find a way of managing them that shortens them and does not let them drag everyone else in the family down.

Coming up with a clear range of strategies that you can draw upon can help. For example, you can encourage her to calm down: “I know you are upset, but let’s take a break for a minute to calm down.”

If she is disrespectful you calmly disgengage: “I can talk to you only when you speak politely to me.” You can warn her of consequences: “If you continue to shout you are only going to lose some of your TV time later or have to go to your room for a while.”

The key is to find a plan of action that does not allow you to get hooked in to your daughter’s tantrum and that allows you to get on with family life unfazed.

Cultivate relationship
When problems like this happen, relationships can become very fraught and this makes matters worse. Try to address this by continuing to reach out and cultivate your relationship with your daughter.

When in the day do you have better conversations with her? When in the day do you enjoy her company? When do you get enjoyable time alone together?

It can really help to try to appreciate and enjoy some of the more positive aspects to he personality, rather than focusing on the problems.

Even if these do not occur frequently, try to build on the little moments and increase their frequency. Having some better times make the tantrums less likely and give you both the resources to better deal with them when they do happen.

Finally, changing an ingrained pattern of tantrums takes a lot of patience and hard work. Do consider seeking support either by attending a parenting course or contacting a mental health professional.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, November 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.