Help! Our daughter is an angel at school but a monster at home!

Dear Jenny Jackson

We have an explosive eight-year-old daughter. She has always been like this but we assumed we would be through it by now – that it was a phase she’d grow out of. She reacts to being asked to do the usual things like getting ready for school or bed. She explodes if she doesn’t like what we are having for dinner, when doing homework or chores, when she’s not getting on with her six-year-old sister, and the list goes on. Her teachers say she’s great at school and has friends, and we always get good reports when she goes to play at her friends’ houses. She can be lovely – intelligent, kind and funny, so how come she’s so difficult at home? We’ve tried reasoning with her and being tough – time out doesn’t work because she won’t go to her room or keeps coming out if we do manage to get her in there. She can ruin family outings with her outbursts. It’s like she holds the family ransom. Can you help?

Some of Jenny’s tips

It never ceases to amaze me how different kids within the same family can be. Just when we think we’ve got this parenting gig sorted, we have a totally different personality come along. Some children can be equally fabulous and frustrating – sometimes kind, caring and helpful, and at other times, prickly, tiring and exasperating. I think one of the most steadying things in this situation is to have a long-term picture – a kind of anchor. Who do you want your girls to be when they’re ready to launch themselves into the world as adults? What are a handful of key qualities you’d like them to have?

Most parents say they want respectful, resourceful and resilient children – or a variation of these character traits. This long-term view will help you keep your perspective when things are tricky.

The other anchor is to have a list in your mind of what you like about your children – what qualities do you see from time to time that you admire in them? When we see our children through the lens of these lovely qualities, they pick up that we like them and aren’t just tolerating them. And so, they are much more likely to cooperate with us.

The encouraging thing you can hang onto here is that your daughter knows how to behave at school and with friends. You have taught her well. Let her know you see this – “I heard from your teacher that you’ve been looking out for some of the younger kids. That’s kind of you.” Or, “Chloe’s mum said you were really polite and helpful when you went to play today.” Fill her emotional tank when opportunities present themselves or look for opportunities to encourage her.

The big challenge with children who have strong feelings is to help them learn to manage themselves. The first step toward this is our ability as parents to remain as calm as possible. This is very steadying for children. Then kids need opportunities to offload their emotions. They may need some options to choose from – for example, “Are you frustrated or disappointed?” We need to let them know it’s normal to feel that way – “Okay, that makes sense.” Once they’ve had the opportunity to offload and label what’s going on, they’ll be better equipped to pick a solution. “So what would help? Do you need to run around the house first or are you ready to get dressed now?”

Sometimes they’ll need time to think about what they need so you can say, “Come and find me when you’re ready.” Sometimes there isn’t time to go through this process, so then it is a case of giving your children two choices. For example, “Do you want to get dressed first or have breakfast first?” This gives powerful kids some control within steady boundaries. Again, they might need a few minutes to make up their minds.

Often these kids need to know what’s happening in advance. They struggle with spontaneity. We called it ‘planned spontaneity’ when we cottoned onto it in our family! We can defuse a great deal of tension by saying, “We’re going to the beach tomorrow. Think about which friend you want to invite.”

The outcome

We immediately latched onto the idea of offloading emotion. It’s such a simple framework if we’re calm enough to act on it. We don’t do it all the time but when we do, our girl calms right down. She loves having input into choosing options when we listen to her. She is great at coming up with ideas and this gives us the opportunity to praise her, which then calms things down even more. We’ve noticed that she is a lot more helpful for some time after we’ve done this. If we don’t have time to go through the whole process, your idea about two choices works most of the time. Thanks too for your comment about some kids being difficult. That took a lot of pressure off us because we really had been thinking it was our fault somehow. We feel like we’re heading in the right direction – long may it last!