Q: We have a ten-year-old daughter who runs our family. We allowed her to begin dictating to us when she began talking and it’s just gone slowly downhill ever since. She manipulates us with shrieking tantrums, disrespect, and downright refusal to do what we tell her to do. We must have done something right, however, because she gets nothing but praise and compliments from teachers, coaches, and her peers’ parents. We can hardly believe they are describing the same child. Is it too late to turn this around? If not, what should we do? We’re desperate.
A: Your daughter has obviously figured out that what works with you is not going to work in other settings with other adults, which is a reliable hallmark of high intelligence. Good news, eh? Nonetheless, you would be wise to get control of her before she hits adolescence. My experience has been that no matter the positives of an at-home hellion, all bets are off by age thirteen.
To your first question, no, it is not too late to turn this around. I’ve witnessed tougher cookies than your daughter be completely rehabilitated at her age. To do so requires an equally complete overhaul of her life in the home. And believe me, things will get worse before they start getting better. If you’re ready, read on!
First, when she’s at school or at a friend’s house one day, strip her room of any “entertainment value” including playthings, electronics, dolls, her music machine, even books. When you’re done, her room should look like a dorm room in a nunnery. Now, the final touch: Take her door off its hinges and store it in the garage or the attic.
Second, when she arrives home and discovers her new, minimalist lifestyle, inform her that she is going to live in said circumstances until she completely stops the tantrums and disrespect and is obeying you without exception, discussion, or delay. Also let her know that you are cancelling all extracurricular activities for the duration of her rehab. She will, of course, throw the tantrum to end all tantrums (at least, let’s hope so) upon receiving this edict. Just let her rage.
Do not, under any circumstances, explain to her the moral value of proper family behavior. Given your history, a conversation of that sort with her is likely to turn into a negotiation. You must transform yourselves into brick walls. Make no concessions. Remember the adage of an inch turning into a mile.
Third, on any given day, the first offense (tantrum, disrespect, disobedience in any form) results in confinement to her room for thirty minutes. The second offense of the day results in one hour of confinement. The third results in confinement for the remainder of the day and the earliest bedtime you can manage.
Finally, inform her that she is going to live in a doorless boot camp room for a minimum of three months at the end of which there will be an assessment of her progress. If outstanding problems remain, three months will become six.
If you pull this off, three months should do it. Pulling it off requires that you learn how to be “mean,” which simply means convincing your daughter that you MEAN what you say.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.