My six year old is getting to be impossible

My 6 year old is getting to be impossible. I've set limits with her and rules for our home and she refuses to adhere to them. almost as if she is a spoiled brat. When I give in and let her receive some positive reward, later it's like dealing with a spoiled bear. instead of appreciating the quality time with friends or family, she acts like a spoiled brat. like I don't let her have any fun or rewards or treats. at this point I want to cancel her birthday party. I don't know what to do with her any more. it seems like I can't make her happy no matter what I do or say. Please advise me on what I can do because I'm at my wits end.

Thanks,
Susan

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Dear Susan,

It is realistic to expect your daughter to follow appropriate house rules. It is not realistic to expect that she not be unhappy when she does face consequences for breaking the rules, whether it be in front of others or privately with you. You are giving her mixed messages when you set rules only to "give in" because you do not want to be the "heavy", or perhaps you do not want the effort that setting limits requires of a parent. Either way, you need to ask yourself what you can do to change the situation. You are the parent. She is the child. You are in charge! What skills do you need to develop in order to deal with your own frustration at this point in your development as a mother?

The fact that you are feeling so negatively about your daughter runs the risk that she will internalize your belief that she is a "brat". This will not build her self-esteem or help her delay gratification, which is at the heart of the self-discipline you want her to develop. Instead, believing this label may cause her to develop more problem behavior that fulfills your expectations of her. Begin to see your daughter's behavior as separate from her core self. She may in fact be a very loving and sensitive girl that is having difficulty following rules. Labeling her as a "brat" is a reflection of your frustration in dealing with this part of parenting that is so difficult for you. Take responsibility for what she has to learn from you, and ask yourself to go the extra mile, before you expect her to do so.

Healthy communication between you and your child means that you can accept her feelings, but have expectations for her behavior. Separating feelings from behavior is important for all family members. This means that you can accept your child's anger and sadness when you do set limits. And because you are the parent you know you are acting in her best interest in the long run. You can delay your immediate desire for a happy, smiling child and realize that she needs you to love her by setting limits and carrying through. Accept her sadness and her anger when you discipline her. This will communicate love. But do not shy away from your responsibilities to help her learn self control.

You may be placing your own self-esteem in your child's hands, and then perceiving her as "bad" or "spoiled" when she acts differently than you think she should. Your own need to "make her happy" may in fact be a reflection of wanting her to behave in ways that are only positive, and do not cause you to be the "bad guy" yourself. If you are placing your self-esteem as a mother in your child's hands, you may be colluding to feel close to her by pleasing her, rather than accepting the boundaries of the parent-child relationship. It is your job as a parent to accept her unhappiness when she bears the consequences of breaking rules. "Giving in" to her leads to more of the same behavior you already dislike! Without setting consistent limits, your daughter learns to manipulate others in ways that will frustrate her in being able to make and maintain enduring relationships in the future.

First, it is important that you clearly establish what is expected of your daughter, including the consequences which should be appropriate to the infraction. You should not only be absolutely ready to carry out the consequence when your daughter does misbehave, but you should expect it to occur! She will test what you say, and it may take three or four times before she believes that you are serious at this point, and that she can trust you to mean what you say. Do not threaten her with the fact that you are ANGRY. This will only lead to spiraling emotions on your part which leave you feeling guilty later. Instead, communicate consequences and follow through on them. Your anger is not the consequence, the consequences are!

Secondly, when you do discipline your child, it is critical that you do so in as calm and neutral a manner as possible. No matter what you are feeling inside! It is OK to feel angry, but do not make an issue of your anger. This will simply lead to your feeling out of control. Simply follow through on the discussion about rules and consequences. Do not retaliate in anger, even though you may feel an urge to do so! Develop self-control and enough emotional separation from her that you see her as the child ( You can remind yourself that this accounts for her "immature" behavior). See yourself as the adult who does not indulge your feelings but accepts her need for your discipline as part of your parental role.

And finally, develop tolerance for her emotions, but do not accept her acting out behavior. Likewise, accept your own feelings, but do not act them out on her! Canceling her birthday party sounds like an idea that arises out of angry retaliation, rather than a calm, natural or appropriate consequence that has been communicated in advance of the infraction. If this is the case, do not do it! Instead, calmly reflect on the fact that you are a great mother, but that this is a particularly difficult part of parenting for you. Realize that as much as you love your child, you are tempted to model the very kind of behavior she is showing. Giving her treats may be your way of being close to her, making up for being angry at her or solving a situation quickly by getting her to behave in the moment, without anticipating the future. Canceling her party because you feel angry and hurt by her misbehavior sounds excessive. These may be signs that you do not follow through on calm limit setting yourself, but have a tendency to resort to emotional extremes in acting out your emotions, without separating feelings from behavior. This is what your daughter is doing, too. She may also be resorting to manipulating you in the moment because she cannot tell whether you mean what you say, or are just acting momentarily out of anger. If you are acting your own anger out in these ways, she quickly learns that when your guilt sets in, it is another story.

Remorse and guilt may then be acted out as well, by giving treats to make up for an inappropriate outburst, as an example. In such a situation, anger and guilt become an endless cycle. The child receives confusing messages: ... "I am very angry at you and so I will punish you" and later, following drama and tears, the guilty message.... "I am sorry for being so angry with you and of course I will not punish you now because I feel differently". In this case, the "punishment" is an extension of the feeling. And because feelings change constantly, so do the rules! Consequences should always be independent of whatever feeling you are experiencing towards your child in the moment. Then you can be assured they are not excessively punitive or alternately too permissive. She can become confused as to what the truth is if feelings become confused with actions.

Trust will be established when your child experiences your feelings as separate from the consequences for breaking the rules. Then she knows the rules are always the same no matter what mood you are in at the moment! The result will be a calmer child, as she does not have to constantly figure out what the real limit is today. You will feel more in control. And she will have the security that comes from consistency and trust in what you say.

It is wiser to allow yourself the feelings of anger which will pass, without acting them out in the situation, but calmly delivering consequences as previously discussed and seeking satisfaction simply from the fact that you are in charge and can set limits with your child. Perhaps this will feel empowering enough to you that when your anger passes and her tears dry, you can calmly reinforce the rules and continue a loving relationship. Sometimes it helps for a Mom to be able to say out loud, "I love you and I am angry at you for not following the rules we talked about. You will have to go to your room for a time out, as we discussed." Be clear with yourself that you love her even when you are angry and you will be less likely to feel guilty.

It is a source of security for children to rely on their parents to set and carry through on appropriate limits. Children feel loved because they feel contained by their parent's ability to model control where they have not yet learned self-control. By experiencing your clear and matter-of-fact limit setting, your daughter internalizes an ability to set her own limits as a future adult and gains a capacity for self-discipline. Setting clear and consistent limits will help your daughter feel secure in your love, despite the fact that she is expected to learn self control!

Reflect on the way you were disciplined, or not as a child. Sometimes, when we come from families where discipline was too extreme, we err by not setting limits for our children as an overreaction to inappropriate limits in our childhood. Or, our own experience of discipline may have been equally inconsistent and did not allow us to develop self control in dealing with the limit setting responsibilities of parenthood. If so, we will pass this lack of control onto our children if we do not develop in ourselves what is missing.

Often, the missing link is realizing that you can love your child even as you are angry. And that feelings are separate from action. Do not try to control your child's feelings. Instead, accept that they are sad and angry at you for setting limits, but you still love them even though you, too may feel angry at their behavior. Books that may help in developing an attitude of respect and love, while setting limits include Nancy Samalin's "Loving Your Child is not Enough" or Gregory Bodenhamer's "Back in Control".

And remember, you are not alone! All of us mothers continue to grow and develop throughout life. There is no such thing as a "perfect parent". Your own desire for help and ability to reach out to learn from others when things are not working well, is a sign of strength. Seeking help when you need it is a wonderful legacy for your children.

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