Tuesday 6 December 2016

My husband and I don't agree on how to get our daughter to do as she's told

Published 15/11/2016 | 02:30

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Photo posed by models

Advice from parenting expert and clinical psychologist David Coleman on how to find a consistent approach from parents when disciplining a difficult 10-year-old daughter and why parents shouldn't panic because their daughter appears to have OCD.

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Q. Our 10-year-old daughter is very bright. However, at home she ignores simple requests, trying to get a rise out of us. It always starts after I, or her dad, ask her to "please" do her homework, have a shower, etc. I've resorted to bribing her to do these things. My husband thinks I'm being ridiculous and need to show her who's boss, but to be honest, his way, physically shunting her upstairs shouting and roaring, doesn't sit well with me and upsets our younger child. She opposes everything and it can escalate into big rages. Have you any advice?

David replies: You and your husband sound like you must be at logger-heads about how to deal with your daughter. You are each reacting to her in very different ways, and there is little consistency between you. I could also imagine that you could easily undermine each other.

Perhaps your starting place might be for you both to go to a parenting course. It isn't that a parenting course will, necessarily, provide you with "right" answers for how to deal with your daughter, but it might, at least, offer you both a unified approach.

She could well be in the position, currently, where she plays one of you off, against the other, knowing that once she is oppositional, it will only be a matter of time before it leads to a row between you and your husband and she can melt away into the background.

I have, frequently, come across this kind of dynamic in families. Parents don't agree about how to deal with a child's behaviour and the child ends up running rings around everyone.

So, creating a united force is one of the most effective ways for you and your husband to get back in charge.

Your daughter, undoubtedly, needs a firm hand to guide her, direct her and keep her on track with all that she has to do each day. However, your firmness needs to be backed up with kindness and understanding.

Your husband's approach, for example, sounds like it is very firm, but delivered somewhat harshly and aggressively. While it may succeed in getting your daughter to comply, it may also engender great resentment and ill-feeling in your daughter.

Your approach doesn't sound firm enough, as your daughter doesn't seem to believe that you mean what you say, and that when you tell her to do something, that she must do it. "Bribing" her to do things that she needs to do as a matter of course, may undermine your own authority, as it seems you are giving her a choice where there really should be no choice.

The ideal approach, in my view, takes the best of what you, currently, each do. I like the uncompromising nature of your husband's approach. Your daughter definitely needs to know that there is no choice and that she must do what she is asked/told.

However, the point at which your husband starts roaring and shouting is where it probably all falls apart. Once he is angry and yelling, he is not making wise decisions. He is probably threatening all sorts of consequences, many of which he will be unable or unwilling to enforce. Even if he does enforce them they may be too punitive to be effective.

So, stick with the determination that your daughter "must" do what she is told. Then show lots of understanding about the fact that this might feel frustrating, intrusive, disruptive or annoying for her. Show her that you do understand, that she mightn't want to do what she is asked, but (and the but is important) she must do it, despite her feelings.

Then follow through, working alongside her, using your presence to physically guide her through the task to ensure she does what she is told. Keep empathising. Keep calm. The calmer you stay, during any tantrum she may show, the more effective you will be.

In many ways, it doesn't matter what approach you use, as long as you and your husband share the approach.

I think you'll find that when you are working together, with one vision, that your daughter will realise there is no more wriggle room and that she will have to start working with you rather than fighting against your combined parenting efforts.

My 10-year-old's insistence on making her bed in a certain way each day makes me think she has OCD

Q. I think my second daughter, age 10, is showing signs of OCD. She insists on tidying her bed every morning before going to school, in a very particular way. Her quilt has to be tucked in and if the quilt has stripes they have to be straight. Then there are some pillows that have a specific place and four different teddies placed in the middle of the bed. She will not leave the house unless this has been done.

The trouble is this always makes her late and leads to big rows every day. What do you think is the best kind of help to get for her?

David replies: The first thing I'd suggest is that you not panic yourself into believing that your daughter has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is an anxiety-related condition in which children (and adults) can think in rigid, intrusive ways, often leading to the repetition of certain behaviours in order to reduce anxiety symptoms.

True OCD can be very debilitating as a child can get totally overwhelmed by the nature of their compulsions, and thereby locked into rigid and unyielding repeating patterns of behaviour. The fear of harm (often of harm coming to them or someone they love) if the behaviour is not completed exactly is incredibly distressing and so the repetition is often an attempt to get it "just right" so that they can move on.

These kinds of behaviours are often more akin to a ritual that is repeated as many times as necessary until the child feels that it is done correctly and so avoids the perceived harm.

What you are describing in your daughter may be a compulsive behaviour. Her method of preparing her bed, ready to be left for the day, may be associated with an extreme anxiety and may be stereotyped and compulsive… or it may just be a perfectionistic streak in your daughter's personality.

People commonly refer to themselves, or others, as "OCD" when they have particular ways of doing things, typically related to some aspect of neatness. References like these are akin to saying we feel "depressed" because we are feeling sad, or exhausted, on a particular day.

But fleeting feelings of distress, fatigue and hopelessness are not depression. Similarly, extreme neatness, or perfectionistic tendencies are not OCD.

So be wary of labelling your daughter. From your point of view, it is worth doing a little bit more exploration of what meaning the bed-making routine has for her.

For example, what would happen to her if the bed didn't get made at all, or in the way she likes it to be? Does she get upset, or does she get anxious? Can you tell the difference? What kind of interactions with you or her dad does the bed-making ritual lead to? Could her determination to make her bed, in such a particular manner, be part of an habitual dynamic between you both?

Many children, in families, develop a "thing" that sets them apart from their siblings. Often this "thing" garners them more attention, or notice, from otherwise busy parents. Sometimes it even seems to define who the child is.

We often describe them to others as such… "my daughter won't eat a thing for me", "my son is a street angel but a house devil", "have you met my son; he's a total live wire", "you know my daughter, she's such an adrenaline junkie".

You may have found yourself describing your daughter similarly, "she's always late, she has to have things just-so, before she leaves the house…"

If you do remain concerned about the level of routine or ritual that your daughter has, then do get a referral to a child psychologist and explore the nature of her behaviour in more detail. Like I said, it is entirely possible that she does, indeed, have true compulsions based on rigid, anxiety-based, thinking.

If she does have OCD then Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is one of the most effective treatments.

If she doesn't have OCD then it may be just a question of tweaking the morning routine to give her the time she needs to organise her bed, without disrupting everyone else's schedule.

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