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Angry five year old

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Dr. Laura,
I've just found your website and have found it extremely helpful for a dilemma I am having. I have a 5 year old daughter who is extremely extremely strong willed. We have gone through some traumas these past few years (job losses, deaths in family, international relocation, loss of home due to fire) that caused us some stress, and even though I thought I was handling everything well, I guess the stress got to me. I myself am doing work to overcome the abandonment of my own father, and being raised by an emotionally absent, angry, depressive mother. Motherhood for me is quite challenging and overwhelming sometimes, (especially being a full time mom and earning more than my husband). I often feel overwhelmed by all of my responsibilities.

I work on myself every day so I can be the best mother. But, I did notice from even as young as a few months old that my daughter was going to be a strong willed child (I think I was one too!) :)

Lately, my daughter has been a bit angry, and I am afraid she is maybe mirroring the reactions I have had over this past year or two. When I say she is strong willed, I mean that she really resists any request or any thing that needs to be done. After a 2 hour commute and a full work day, it has not always been easy for me to stay calm. We don't hit, except for a once in a blue moon tap on the butt if she is really out of control. She does have a tendency to still have some tantrums, especially after her after-school program (which I gather she is tired and hungry).

Now, every time I start to say any type of request...she say's STOP IT MOMMY..........constantly........and she has started yelling at me. In public, I am not sure how to handle this, and I am doing everything in my power to stay calm.....which is quite difficult sometimes. After she has been quite fresh, and I am trying to deal with her, she says "You don't want me to be your daughter anymore MOMMY". Now, when we are not having these issues, we are affectionate, spend lots of time together, read, play, and snuggle before bed at night. I always tell her how much I love her and how lucky I am to be her mommy. I try to be as positive as I can. I am doing my best (as is my husband...who is much more calm than I am) keep things consistent with her.

I am at my wits end and feel like I am messing up as a mother. I know my reactions are not always perfect and that maybe I say the wrong things sometimes. Her mental, physical health and happiness is my goal in life, since I myself was not lucky enough to have that. I am doing a lot of work to release repressed anger I may have I can be a bit nervous a result of my own upbringing. I make no excuses for myself, just a little background so you can understand. I take full responsibility for anything I may do to cause her these reactions, but I just feel so lost. I am not sure if I should take her to therapy, or if there is a better way to handle her yelling at me and constantly defying me.

Any input from you would be so greatly appreciated as I have days at work, that I have to run into the bathroom and cry, because I feel like I am failing at the most important job in the world.

Thank you in advance.


Dear Barbara,
First, I want to extend my sympathy for the travails you've suffered. Being a parent is hard under the best of circumstances. When you lose your home due to fire, lose a job, relocate internationally, and especially lose loved ones, parenting well becomes a Herculean task. When you haven't had the best parenting from your own mom and dad, things get even more complicated.

Your description of your daughter's angry behavior isn't surprising, given the circumstances and your own self-described stress. When kids act like your daughter is acting, it's a cry for help. I suspect that your daughter has a lot of pent-up feelings about all these traumatic experiences, and also about her relationship with you, given all the stress you've been under. She needs your help to process those emotions. The simple way to say it is that she needs a good cry to get them off her chest.

I think your daughter is also asking for more connection to you. Some kids can handle all day at school and daycare with parents working, but it sounds like your daughter is feeling disconnected from you by the end of the day. I say that because she is fighting against your direction and requests. When kids who feel connected to their parents, they WANT to please them, as long as they aren't on the defensive to get their own needs met. This isn't a reflection on your overall relationship with your daughter, just an indication that after a long day, your connection has eroded and needs to be renewed before your daughter will accept your direction.

Finally, when you try to set limits on your daughter's “freshness” she concludes that you must not love being her mother. From her perspective, you're reacting to the wrong thing – her “freshness” – rather than hearing her cry for help.

What can you do with this challenging situation when you're already feeling overwhelmed?

1. You deserve some serious self-care. You've been through a lot lately. You're also healing childhood pain. I would recommend that you find a counselor who can work with you for a bit to help you through these issues. In addition, find sustainable ways to take care of yourself. You want to give your daughter the best of yourself, not what's left of yourself.

2. Before you pick your daughter up in the evening, get centered yourself. Then, immediately connect with her. Get down on her level. Give her a big hug. Use endearments. Say the same thing every day, to signal that it's time to reconnect. Snuggle for a minute before setting off for home so she feels connected to you.

3. Don't run errands on the way home. Just get her from her after-school program to your home as quickly and painlessly as possible. Instead of giving her any kind of requests, use that time to “baby” her, listen to her, and connect with her. If she's like most five year olds, she dawdles on the way home. To prevent her hunger from pushing her over the edge, feed her a small snack as you walk (for example, crackers with peanut butter that you packed that morning). (I'm assuming you're walking, but this also works in the car.)

4. If your daughter gives you a hard time on the way home, meet her “fresh” remarks with empathy. “You don't want to _____. You wish _____. You're mad that ______. Do I have that right?” This is not the time to have a meltdown on the street; your empathic responses will disarm her crankiness and help her feel understood.

5. Once you get home, brace yourself. Your little girl has an avalanche of feelings that she really needs to release. That's why she's acting so ornery. If you can, get some dinner into both of you before she loses it, by continuing to meet her unhappiness with empathy (and by having something ready that you can quickly reheat.)

6. Help her cry. Then, create enough safety that your daughter can show you all those feelings and get them off her chest. How? Summon up all your compassion. Gently set a reasonable limit. For instance, you might say, “It's time to take your bath now. Remember, five minutes ago, you chose to take your bath in five minutes. It has been five minutes and now it's time.” When your daughter yells “STOP IT MOMMY!” you can meet her anger with empathy and kindness but stick firm to your limit. “You wish it wasn't bath time so you could keep playing. But it's late and we need to get you washed up and ready for bed.”

At this point, your daughter will most likely have a meltdown. If she doesn't, repeat your firm limit, coupled with warmth, and that will almost certainly trigger her tears. (You know how when you really need to cry, and someone is kind to you, you melt?)

When your daughter launches into crying or raging, stay close. Say “It's ok to cry. It's ok to be mad. I'm be right here. I see how much you're hurting.”

If she yells at you to go away, that's a sign that she doesn't want to feel these feelings. Your presence is what makes her feel safe enough to let these feelings out, so if she can get you to leave her alone, she can bottle them up again. You can simply say, “I love you, Sweetie, and I don't want you to be alone with these feelings while you feel so bad.”

If she tries to hurt you, move a little away and don't her hurt you, but keep speaking to her in a calming voice, acknowledging that she has lots of upsetting feelings built up and it's good to let them all out, and that you will be there for her.

During this episode of your daughter “unburdening” herself, let her be as “fresh” as she wants. She may well scream at you and say terrible things. Don't take them personally, and don't feel you are letting her get away with something. She is expressing feelings that have been tormenting her, in the best way she knows how. Rather than learning that she can treat you badly, she is learning that you are a safe haven for her to grapple with what most bothers her. This experience will make her feel closer to you, and will result in her being more cooperative, affectionate, and respectful, all of which result from a closer relationship.

Your daughter's “fit” may go on for a very long time. That's good. Realize that you are doing her a huge service and allowing her to release feelings that have been pent up for years. Simply make yourself available so that she can cry.

However, the point is NOT for your daughter to dump her anger on you. If she gets stuck in anger instead of tears, it means she needs more safety to feel comfortable crying. So ratchet up your empathy.

7. Don't make her talk.
She doesn't need to explain what she's upset about. I doubt she really knows.

8. Keep breathing. This will probably be tough for you. If you find that you have feelings of your own coming up (anger, grief), just try to breathe through them and later find a safe way to cry and discharge them yourself. You almost certainly have some pent-up feelings yourself and will need to give yourself the time and space to honor them.

9. When she seems to be calming down, test if she's really done by looking her lovingly in the eye. If she still has some “yucky” emotions to discharge, your caring connection will once again trigger a flood of tears. If not, she will melt into your arms.

10. Move on. Hug her and say "Those were some big feelings. You can always show me how you feel. Let's go take your bath now." You'll find that after crying like this, your daughter will be affectionate and ready for her bath. She won't want to discuss what's just happened, which is fine. Prying will make her feel less safe, which is the opposite of what you want.

11. Welcome tears on an ongoing basis. After this initial “release session” I suspect your daughter will be much easier to deal with. However, she will probably also provoke you to set a limit occasionally so that she has an excuse to cry and rage. That's healthy.

12. Longterm, find ways to strengthen your connection with your daughter. Can you change jobs to shorten your commute? Can you find ways to stay connected to her during the day, for instance, by putting surprises and notes into her lunch, or calling her when she arrives at her afterschool program?

13. Find ways to appreciate your daughter's strong-willed ways
, so that she knows that she is allowed to be herself and still have you love her. Have you read my article on Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child?

I know you have been dealing with a frustrating situation. You are doing so many things right: Connecting with your daughter, telling her you're lucky to be her mom, for instance. I have seen many kids like your daughter transform once their “freshness” is met with empathy and kind but firm limits that give them an opportunity to cry. I hope this is true for your daughter as well. I wish you every blessing.

Dr. Laura

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