Q My daughter is 15. Her nana died unexpectedly last November. They were very close. She is a good girl but it has made her angry since. If she gives us cheek, or gets angry about some limit we set, I take her phone off her for a while, but then she erupts and there is no talking to her. How can I explain to her that she can't say we are in the wrong by taking her phone off her, and that she just needs to relax for a while?
David replies: It may be that your daughter feels you don't understand her. On the one hand, you do seem to recognise that her nana's death may have had a big impact on her, and may be linked to her current mood. Yet, at the time when that mood gets acted out (by giving cheek or acting angrily to limits) you only seem to be responding to her behaviour by punishing her.
If you recognise that her nana's death has been emotionally disruptive for your daughter, then her anger may indeed be stemming from that. She may feel that the loss of her granny is, at its core, unfair. Many people experiencing grief feel injustice and anger during the process of that grief. If we imagine then that the death of her nana has created a well of strong feeling inside her, then small triggers (like limits or demands) may actually unleash a flood of big feelings that seem out of proportion to the trigger incident.
It may help her, in those moments, if you respond to her emotions rather than to the behaviour that those emotions create. So, when she gives cheek, or gets angry about limits or demands, you can use the opportunity to empathise with her. Since it is likely that her nana's death may be the source of a lot of that anger, that is probably the best place to start.
So, you may choose to respond by saying things like, "you seem cross that I am saying 'no' to you just now, I often wonder if you feel cross anyway because your nana died and you miss her so much".
Another possible way to empathise might be "when you get cross about these small things, I'm often reminded that maybe you just feel really cross and upset about nana dying. That has been really hard for all of us and maybe you really miss her."
Empathy statements like these may help your daughter to tap into her feelings of grief and may help her to process them more, reducing the intensity of the strong feelings she could have.
Since there are likely to be very good reasons why she gets angry right now, it might be best to stop punishing her, since her anger could be subconscious and unintended. Naturally you will still want to correct any rudeness or lack of respect, but you don't need to take her phone to help her learn that it is not appropriate to speak like that.
If anything, the punishment is probably exacerbating her anger, making it less likely she can even notice what it is that she is doing wrong.
Taking away punishment, while empathising more, should reduce her sense of injustice and might free her up to be able to actually make sense of her strong feelings and deal with them in a more appropriate way.