Dear David Coleman: 'I've started to resent my daughter. Her behaviour is terrible for me but she's good for everyone else'
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My daughter is seven years old and is very defiant. She hits and kicks me and is very, very stubborn.
She won't do a thing I ask her to do and if she doesn't get her way, she has a huge tantrum screaming, shouting, kicking me etc. I've tried the bold chair, reward charts, taking away favourite toys, no TV etc, but to no avail. She is an angel in school and for my mum, so I think she keeps it all for me. I am totally at the end of my tether. I've started to really resent her and don't want to spend time with her. Please help.
David replies: I am not surprised to hear that you have started to resent your daughter. If you can see that her behaviour is good in other situations then it must feel like she keeps all of her distress, anger and aggression for you.
The fact that she is able to behave appropriately in other settings like school is very positive, as it means that she doesn't have some kind of behaviour disorder. She can contain her anger and aggression when she is outside the house (or away from you) as opposed to being defiant, stubborn and violent everywhere.
This "street angel, house devil" that you describe also suggests to me that something about the quality of her relationship with you is important in helping us to understand and resolve the behaviour that she shows.
Often, with children, difficult or challenging behaviour is most often associated with some kind of distress or upset. Because a child might not have the sophisticated language to be able to describe complex feelings, they may try to show their emotions through their behaviour instead.
A complicating factor, however, is that the feelings may not be directly expressed through behaviour. So, for example, if a child is sad, she may not demonstrate sadness. If she is jealous, we may not see jealousy. Indeed, we usually see some kind of angry behaviour, no matter what the underlying feelings are.
It is as if all of her strong feelings may have been mixed together, in her inner world, and as they mix together they coalesce to form anger. Anger is a quite a useful way to be able to express intense or strongly held feelings. So, for example, even when children are scared, or disappointed, or ashamed we may only see that expressed in anger.
That means we parents have to become quite detective-like in trying to work out what underlying feelings might be contributing to angry outbursts. We will, often, be aware of circumstances that preceded an angry outburst and those circumstances might give us a clue about the real, hidden, feeling.
So, for example, if you tell your daughter to stop playing because it is time for bed, and you get a big tantrum in response, you might guess that her disappointment at the ending of her playtime is the real trigger. Or, it might be that she views bedtime as a worrisome time because she'll be separated from you (for example) and it is her anxiety that underlies the angry outburst.
Since we can't know for sure you might suggest both guesses to your daughter. So you might say something like, "I think you hate it when playtime ends, I'd guess its really annoying and disappointing to have to stop." And you might also say, "Or maybe you just don't like bedtime. I wonder if you miss me when you have to go to bed."
Both of these are empathy statements and will show your daughter that you are trying to understand the potentially complicated feelings she might have. Talking with her in this way will give her a strong sense that you notice her, care about her and want to help her.
Building up your relationship with her in this positive way will really help you both to deal with these points of conflict in the day where your views about what needs to happen differ with hers. Your response to her when she acts in challenging ways is important.
Helping your daughter with her behaviour might involve some changes to how you approach your parenting with her. If she can behave well with others, she can behave well with you too. You might just need to respond to her differently.
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