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Stubborn Child is Wearing Me Out

Dear Dr. Markham,
I never have been the "mommy" type who wanted five children all around me but I was happy when I got pregnant unexpectedly. Now that my daughter is two and a half, her personality is definitely showing and to be honest, it's wearing me out. Every day is a power struggle. Everything I ask her to do becomes a fight. She is the most stubborn child I have been around. I am deeply afraid that by the time she is a teen, we will be complete enemies! I have always been very close to my mother and I couldn't imagine a mother-daughter relationship that isn't close! Please help me. Any advice will be appreciated due to the fact that much stress is wrapped up in this situation!!
Jessica

Dear Jessica,
I am very glad that you wrote. You are at a crossroads with your daughter. Things could either get much harder — leading to real estrangement in the teen years, as you fear — or things could get much better. The good news is that you’re in control of which result you get.

Let me explain. Most two year olds are challenging. Sometimes I think that the only reason parents don’t strangle them is that mother nature arms us with hormones that make us fiercely protective of our children. These hormones begin at birth, but are stimulated by every positive interaction we have with our kids.

I’m not hearing, at least in your letter, that protectiveness. What I hear is pain, anger and resentment. You characterize your daughter – who is, after all, a two year old – as the most stubborn child you’ve ever been around, who creates daily power struggles and conflicts. I don't know how many two year olds you've been around, but that’s sort of the definition of a two year old, at least one who has a parent who doesn’t skillfully avoid that kind of behavior.

When I hear moms talk about their kids this way, it's invariably a symptom of a deeper problem, which is that their bond with their child has been disrupted. Sometimes the baby has been difficult to bond with for whatever reason. Sometimes parent and child are temperamentally not ideally suited to each other. Sometimes the mother never really wanted to become a mother and has difficulty seeing herself in that nurturing role with someone small completely depending on her.  Or, often, the mom is simply worn out, and her own needs aren't getting met, so she doesn't have a lot to give her child. It's natural to feel resentful when life is really hard and we aren't getting what we need, and then we have to deal with a toddler.

In any case, what happens when the natural bond between mother and baby is disrupted is that the child has no reason to please the mom and is more challenging than usual to manage. Kids only behave because of who we are to them: their guiding star, the person whose love they live for, the person they don’t want to disappoint. When they sense our disapproval or resentment, they conclude that they’ve already disappointed us, and they stop trying to please us. Instead, everything becomes a fight.

Unfortunately, you can’t control your daughter’s behavior. You can only control your own. But when we change our behavior as parents, our kids always change.

We know that whatever you’ve been doing as a parent is not working, at least not in interaction with your particular two year old. Are you ready to do something different?

If so, you might want to start by reading the part of my website that deals with managing Toddlers so you can enjoy them.

There are also many letters on this website from mothers of toddlers, with answers about how to connect with them and how to give them what they need -- all of which helps you to coax good behavior out of them.  And of course this website has a wealth of information on helping kids want to behave, parenting your strong-willed child, etc.

But I think the most important thing that could change your situation is for you to make a critical decision. You chose to have this baby. (I know you got pregnant unexpectedly, but you could have given the baby up for adoption.) After choosing to have her and keep her, are you prepared to wholeheartedly be her mother? To accept her and adore her? If not, you can expect a miserable next 15 years and a subsequent estrangement, and you will ruin her life.

But if so, you can definitely turn this situation around. You can have the close mother-daughter relationship you want. You can stop feeling worn out and start enjoying your very strong and determined daughter.

I wish you both great blessings.
Dr. Laura Markham

Dear Dr. Laura,
That was just the honest advice I greatly needed and I appreciate you taking the time to help me.  I have just been struggling horribly and no one has been able to help me so far.  You were kind of my last hope. 

You are very right about my daughter feeling like she's disappointing me a lot.  I am (and always have been) a perfectionist.  My expectations for myself are very high and I have felt like a failure as a mother because she has been so stubborn and rebellious.  Those high expectations have been subconsciously put on her.  When she lets me down, I show my disappointment and maybe she has started to give up on pleasing me.  I expect a lot out of her for her age and she probably feels like I am impossible to please!!! 
  
I see her doing things that normal two year olds don't do (i.e. putting her sippy cups on coasters, throwing wrappers away, and getting mad when her blocks don't fit together perfectly or when she can't put clothes on her doll correctly.)  I am glad that she's learning how to take care of furniture and clean up after herself, but I do not want her to be as hard on herself as I have always been on myself!!  
  
I don't want to misrepresent my situation either.  I constantly praise her when she obeys me, accomplishes something, or when she goes in the potty.  I compliment her a lot and tell her that I love her and that she's smart and beautiful.  After reading your advice, however,  I realized that maybe I am making her think that my love for her is only based on her good performances and accomplishments rather than on her as my child. 
  
I think another problem is that my life has been very chaotic with financial strain, marriage problems, and other issues.  With all of that on my shoulders, I haven't had the patience to allow her many mistakes.  This sounds so cruel (and I am seeing where it has been) but I have gotten really upset with her for making messes around the house just playing with her toys.  When I look around my house and there are toys everywhere, it makes me feel depressed and like I am not on top of things.  It makes me feel like my life is not in order.  (That may sound funny but that's how I feel)  Not to mention that I am so overwhelmed with my life already, I really don't want to have to pick up after her all day.  I find myself grumbling under my breath that all I do is serve everyone else all day and that my only purpose in life is to be a maid and a cook.  (I am a stay-at-home mom).  I have even made comments like, "My family is sucking the life right out of me".  I probably sound like a monster to you, but I know I need help and that's why I requested it.  
  
Maybe I am just selfish.  I am not the type of person who feels that motherhood means you have no life.  I have friends who dedicate their whole being to their kids.  In a way, I want to be more like that (content to just live for my children).  In another way, I don't agree with that type of life because my mother was like that and now she resents the fact that she didn't have a life at all.  She loves her children very much, but she regrets not doing things that would have brought her happiness while raising us. 
  
I love my daughter dearly.  She is smart, funny, adorable, and I am very proud of her.  The highlight of my day is taking a nap with her and cuddling her to sleep.  The girl gets tons of hugs and kisses from both her father and me.  I want to change the course of things.  I want a great relationship with her.  I want her to be confident, healthy, and happy. 

I know you may not be able to respond to this right away, but your advice is very good!  Please help me out one more time and I promise I will follow your advice!!  Thank you for your time.
 
Sincerely,
Jessica

Jessica,
I see that you do love your daughter dearly.

I also see that you, like all parents, take your frustrations and unresolved issues out on your daughter. It’s almost impossible not to.

Your daughter sounds like a wonderful child. That she gets mad when her blocks don’t fit perfectly or she can’t get the clothes on her doll correctly bothers me. It is a sign that she has already started down the dangerous path to perfectionism.

Perfectionism — and I speak as a recovering perfectionist — does not take us closer to being perfect. It always takes us away from love. Perfectionism never ends. It is insidious and creeps into our every relationship and way of being in the world. Loving each moment is what gives us more wonderful moments, more love for ourselves, and more rewarding relationships. “This would be perfect if only that one thing improved” gives us more not-good-enough moments and the feeling that we ourselves are never good enough. The best way to keep your daughter from being a perfectionist (which keeps us from being happy) is to stop being a perfectionist yourself.

My prescription for you:

1. Start a new mantra. Use it all day, every day, as many times as you think of it. “I don’t expect perfection, from myself or anyone else. I am more than enough exactly as I am. My daughter is more than enough exactly as she is.”

2. Carve out some time alone by yourself every single day — 15 minutes minimum uninterrupted. Don’t wait. Begin today. Don’t fill up that time with folding laundry, don’t fritter it away watching TV. Sit alone with a notebook or journal. Send yourself love. Simply be present, noticing what comes up. Accept any feelings or thoughts that come up with great compassion for yourself. Write down anything that seems important. Research shows that just being with yourself creates more "friendliness" to the self, and that friendliness toward ourselves is what creates more love and healing in our hearts. If you want some inspiration on how to make the most of this 15 minutes, sign up for my  coach email.

3. Make a plan to begin to work or go back to school. Not every mom is cut out to be a stay at home mom. It sounds to me like you will be a better mom if you aren’t. A job will help your financial pressures and make you more independent in your marriage, which is always a good thing (to negotiate as equals.) A part time job would be best to start, both for your daughter and your stress level.

4. Stop using your daughter as a scapegoat for your frustrations. Work out the problems in your marriage. Stop cleaning up after your husband. Stop dwelling on your frustrations and making yourself more angry, just to be right. Every time you notice yourself looking at her toys or messes and getting angry, say “Why is she acting like a two year old?! Oh, right. She is a two year old. How can I make this cleanup fun for both of us so she learns to like cleaning up and I won’t be cleaning up after her when she’s ten?”

5. Find one place in your house that you can keep clean and orderly. When you sit there, be sure your view is peaceful. Do whatever you need to so that your refuge stays orderly and you are happy when you sit there.

6. If your daughter’s toys really are many and chaotic, put a full day — or whatever is necessary — into better organizing them. Be sure there is a place for everything. Put photos on the outside of boxes showing her what is in her containers so she can clean them up herself. Start rotating toys: put away anything she doesn’t love into a box and put it away in a closet. When you pull it down in a month, they will all seem new and entertaining.

7. Don't get pregnant again until you are happy with your daughter, yourself and your life, all day, every day. Yes, it is possible. Getting pregnant before that will only get in your way by worsening your stress.

8. Remind yourself to be constantly grateful.  A child who wants to spend lots of time playing with toys rather than whining and hanging on you? You’re lucky. A daughter who is smart and beautiful? Anyone would envy you. A child who is stubborn and determined and can’t be pushed around? Count your blessings, she will be immune to peer pressure and more successful in her whole life. A child who puts her sippy cup on a coaster? What did you do right in your last life to get this incredible child?!

9. Every time you feel bad, notice it and find some way to improve your mood. Put on music you love and dance to it. Take a hot bath and sink into the tub (with your daughter, if necessary!) Call your mom or a friend. Smile -- it fools the body into thinking you’re happy and releasing endorphins. Count off all the things you’re grateful for.

10. Look in the mirror right now. Smile at yourself and say “I LOVE YOU.” Do this as many times a day as you can. I know it's corny, but research shows it can transform our mood, and if we do it daily, our lives. Feel that melting feeling as it sinks in.

Good luck. May your day be filled with blessings, big and small.
Dr. Laura

Dear Dr. Laura,
I honestly feel like that is the best advice I have ever received.  I am already seeing things differently and I promise you that I will follow every step and improve this situation.  Things are coming around for our family financially and my marriage is getting better (slowly but surely).  I can sense my stress level lifting a bit and I want to capitalize on that. 

Thank you so much again and God bless you for your selfless work.
Sincerely,
Jessica
P.s.  I hope you don't mind an update in a few months!!  :)

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J. S. commented on 29-Apr-2009 07:51 PM
This is incredible! I was afraid that your first response was going to alienate her, but looks like the hard truth was just what she needed.

Your last advice was so heartfelt, and filled with specific suggestions ......
It really provided things for her to build on. This was a beautiful exchange.

Thanks for all the good advice for all of us!
Anonymous commented on 25-Jun-2009 01:22 AM
This conversation should be posted and featured on the top of your home page!!! Required coursework for parents! I am reading because I'm desperate to fix a similar situation in my own family. Not only do I see myself here, but my husband too. Oh, how my son must be suffering. We'd better get on the dirty and a bit flat (read; non-perfect) ball! Dr. Markham, you are clearly Divinely inspired.
Anonymous commented on 30-Jun-2009 11:18 PM
Hello again, Dr. Laura. This is Jessica!! I just realized that my conversation with you was used in your newsletter and since it has been a while since I wrote that, it was interesting to look back on how at felt at that moment in time. I can proudly report that your advice to me was effective. I started viewing my daughter in a different light and recognizing why she is so special. Our bond is a lot stronger now because of it. I have also started going to school which really helps me to feel like I have something of my own and gives me a sense of accomplishment outside of taking care of my family. I try to take some time every single day and play with her, read to her, or just cuddle her while she talks to me. Laughter fills our house more and it lightens all of our moods! Your advice made me see that I was expecting way too much out of my daughter and that I was allowing my problems to leak over into the relationship I had with her. Because of your words of wisdom, and your blunt delivery, I have corrected my ways for the better and become a more loving, patient, understanding mother. Thanks again!!
Anonymous commented on 01-Jul-2009 01:22 PM
Jessica- Thank you so much for writing. I am thrilled to hear that you are turning your life around and that you and your daughter are doing so much better. I am honored to have had the opportunity to be part of your path.

Many, many parents have found themselves in your situation. I ran your letter in my newsletter because I thought other parents could learn a lot from it. I want to add that while many parents are in your situation, not all of them are able to use good advice when it comes to them. That's because the advice is the easy part, the change is the hard part. You are a special person in that you are willing to change. Your daughter is very lucky, Enjoy her!

Dr. Laura

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