Hi Dr Justin
I have a 7 yr old daughter who can be so sweet and kind and helping, and just excellent. At other times she is so naughty. She has no obvious triggers other than being asked to do something which can lead to the mother of all yelling, screaming, stomping, crying tantrums.
I try to stay calm and talk to her. I get her to breath and try to slow down and think but this just does not work. She repeats her self and holds onto me and squeezes me. It’s like she gets stuck in her behaviour.
Her dad and I are separated and it has not been the easiest separation. She lives with me and sees her dad when he has time for her. He does not follow routine with her, and at home she has a good routine that works well for her. I have also just had a baby to my fiancé.
Dr Justin responds:
We wish our children would be stable, consistent, and always charming in their behaviour. We love them so much when they are sweet and kind, and when they offer help willingly. Life is bliss. Then we ask them to do one simple thing and they become a demon-child!
Children typically only behave in challenging ways when they have an unmet need. Often the acronym H.A.L.T.S.S. can be helpful to identify their needs. If our child is Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Stressed, or Sick then they play up. Sometimes it may not be obvious though, such as when we are being overly controlling, so they become stressed. Or they need our affection because they are feeling lonely or insecure.
Let’s take a look at things from your daughter’s perspective to see if we can understand why her behaviour can seem so difficult.
First, her relationships are a little confusing for her right now. Her dad is not around and appears, from your email, to be relatively unavailable for her. She is biologically wired to connect with him, but he is not there, and as you have mentioned, there is limited consistency between her two homes. This is a regular cause of distress for young children (and even for older children, although they often push such feelings down deep).
In addition, your daughter has gone from being an only child to having a brand new baby to compete for your attention and affection. Children are often afraid that a new baby in the family will replace them. Often their behaviour will be very hard to manage as they see enormous affection being showered on the brand new baby while they get the leftovers. Whether this is reality or not, your daughter’s perception is the key here. If she feels she is being ignored, then she is (whether it is true or not).
Research tells an important and compelling story: children who do not feel strong bonds of connection with their parents struggle emotionally, behaviourally, and even socially and academically. The parent-child relationship is king. If your child is struggling, relationship building is almost always a central factor for improving her wellbeing.
Try the following ideas to improve things with your daughter:
Take note of the amount of interactions you have with her that are all about ‘transactional’ things – getting things done. How often are you giving either correction or direction? What proportion of your interactions are focused on simply being together, chatting, and enjoying one another compared with the time when you’re telling your daughter what to do?
The more time you can spend building the relationship, the more that your daughter will feel safe, secure, connected, and worthy. The more you focus on correction and direction, the less positive your daughter will feel about herself, and your relationship.
Adults are easily irritated when their children have tantrums. It is not popular to say it, but adults often have tantrums too. We are supposed to be big enough to control our emotions, but most of us fail dismally with surprising regularity.
Think about what you want when you’re having a big tantrum: do you want someone to get up close and try to make you calm down? When you’re in the middle of a tantrum what is your response to the person who says, “Honey, just breath. Slow down. Calm down and it will be alright”?
Most adults admit that in the midst of their flying rage, someone telling them to calm down is anything but helpful. When we are thoughtful about things, most of us admit we would really like it if someone simply understood and let us know it was ok to be upset. Something about this seems to help us to calm down faster.
When your daughter has her blow-ups, remember she is just little. She is probably hungry or angry or feeling lonely because the baby is getting all of the attention. Perhaps, since she is only 7, she’s just tired at the end of a long day. Spend time showing you get it, and don’t try to stop it or fix it. Just be there.
It’s lovely to be compassionate and kind, but things still need to be done. Once your daughter has calmed down sufficiently to feel safe and talk with you properly, work on the following steps:
- Ask her, “What did I ask you to do?”
- After she tells you, smile and say, “That seems to be a challenge today. It’s made you upset.”
- Wait for her to respond.
- Ask, “Well, what do you think we should do about it now?”
This isn’t a surefire method of getting things done. Nothing is. However, usually if your daughter is calm, you’ll be able to stick to your limits while helping her problem-solve, finding a solution that works for everyone. Sometimes she might just need a hug. Other times she may want your help. Be there and work with her.
In parenting, there are no easy fixes. But we get the best results when we provide a loving and stable home life, ensure our children always feel loved and wanted, and we always listen to them. Investing in the relationship with nurture and guidance seems to be the best way through these challenging parenting problems.