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My 7 Year Old Is Ruling My Household

by Katie
(New Zealand)

Hi there,
I have a 7 year old daughter, whose father and I broke up when she was 1 and 1/2. She has no contact with him at all, but when she was 2 I met my new partner. She calls him dad and he has raised her like his own for 5 years. He also has 2 boys who we have full time and we have a 2 year old together.

For the last year my daughter has been very hurtful, swearing, hitting, kicking, smashing up my house. It has gotten to the point where her behavior is now interfering with my relationship with my partner.

With her schools support (but she is great at school) we had some home help for awhile but it didn't help. I've tried time out, I've tried taking her telly off her, her bike off her and other toys. And then get her to earn them back with good behavior. But she replies, "I don't fucking care take them."

She has told me she hates me (which I know most children do say), but it's at the point where it's affecting the other children. They now are trying to get away with the same behaviors and it coming in between myself and my partner.

What should I try next??? Help please, I have tried almost everything!!!!

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Turning Bad Behavior Around - Part 1
by: Annie Desantis

Hi Katie,

Wow, you certainly have a little firebrand there! It is interesting that she is behaving well in school, but is a little terror at home. Sounds like you have a pretty busy household, with a two year old as well as the older children, you are a very busy Mum. And when one child is acting up, there is a tendency to direct all your frustration on that child, particularly as you say the issue is now causing problems with your partner.

Bad behavior in kids tends to be either in reaction to something that is happening that they are unhappy about, or because they have learned that is the way they get attention, although it is obviously negative attention. Negative attention is better than none as far as a child is concerned. When a child has developed a pattern of behaving badly, then something is going on for her that is not being dealt with productively.

I am going to suggest you deal with this the opposite to what you have been trying. I am not condoning her behaviour, but in general punishments and time out don't actually teach a child to want to behave differently. Instead it compounds the problem by adding more resentment and in her mind justifies her anger at you. As you say most kids at some stage tell their parents they hate them in the heat of the moment. But it really does sound like she has a lot of anger and resentment aimed at you. Maybe towards your partner also, you didn't mention how she is with him.

I am wondering where she is in relation to your partner's two boys? I am assuming she is younger than them. And now there is another little one on the scene that of course demands a lot of your time. My guess is she has been missing out on quality attention, perhaps since you had the baby. Up until then she was your only child, even though there were other children. Now you are busy with the baby, your partner has his two boys, plus your baby together and she has got a bit sidelined.

I think you will have a much better chance of turning her behavior around if you focus on positive reinforcement and lots of positive attention. She has developed a very destructive pattern of extreme behavior that gets her lots of attention, but just reinforces her belief that she is horrible, not lovable, and maybe even feeling she is not wanted. She has probably heard you and your partner arguing over her which would just compound it all.

I know it is hard to feel loving and positive about a child when they are so destructive. But I promise you, it will start to shift when you start to treat her differently. Because you and your partner will have got to the point that you expect her to behave badly, and every time you think about her the frustration and stress will be foremost in your mind, you are actually contributing to the way she behaves. If you can change how you see her, and focus on her positive characteristics she will start responding to that.

Part Two Follows . . .

Turning Bad Behavior Around - Part 2
by: Annie Desantis

Some of the things I will suggest, will also be good to do as a family, increasing the positive energy for everyone will help to lower the stress in the family and will also build stronger loving relationships all round.

First of all, make some time every day to spend just with her. Organize it so your partner has the 2 year old and the boys for half an hour and make this time for your daughter. (Of course it is also a good idea to do this with each child). And then once a month see if you can get an afternoon, or the whole day together.

In the beginning she will be distrustful and maybe hostile. Your job is to NOT react. Just stay neutral and be available for her. Introduce it in advance by saying you realize you both need some special Mum/Daughter time and for her to think about what she would like to do for that half hour. Maybe a craft activity, maybe reading her stories, maybe a walk to the park. Maybe playing with makeup or doing each others hair, or some baking. This is to be a fun activity, not chores or homework. This is not something she has to earn, and you should never withhold it as a punishment. You are looking to build a strong loving relationship which will minimize the destructive reactive behaviour.

You can also focus on creating positive expectation. Treat her as someone you know is helpful and responsible and a wonderful member of the family. In short probably the opposite of how you have been seeing her. There is lots of research proving that if we expect good behavior we are much more likely to get it.

One very important piece of research, was a new teacher who was given a class of the kids that were the worst behaved, failing academically, the kids that were almost written off. However she was told that she had been given a class of the special, gifted children that were expected to do extremely well. She told them that and treated them that way, and guess what? Those kids succeeded way beyond the researchers expectations. They were guessing there would be a shift in their behavior and academic performance, but these kids all ended up graduating, a much higher percentage than was average went on to University, and they had a high percentage of kids in leadership positions in the school. When the teacher was told at the end of the year she had been part of a research project on how a teacher's expectations can shape the outcomes of a class, she did not believe them that she had been given a class of ratbags!

So my point is, you and your partner have the power to turn this around if you can turn your own expectations and behavior around.

Part Three Follows . . .

Turning Bad Behavior Around - Part Three
by: Annie Desantis

It is great as a family to focus on noticing good behaviour, and making a point of appreciating the ways they cooperate or are helpful with each other. Down the track when it has settled down a bit, it would be good to have family activities where you make note of kindness or helpfulness and keep a chart or little notes in a jar. Then celebrate once a week by reading them out.

But at this point you don't want to create comparisons with the others, because of course it will be a lot easier to find things they are doing well. So deliberately look for things she is doing well. It might be hard at first, it might just be something small, like you do really well at getting ready for school on time, or thanks for putting your schoolbag away. Keep a little notebook to help you remember. Put little sticky notes in her lunchbox saying you love her, or thanking her for something.

Because she has got used to negative attention, it is likely she won't be able to take on board compliments and praise at first. She might snap something back at you, but your job is always to reinforce the positive, not react yourself at any negative stuff from her.

The trouble is as parents we tend to also be reacting. And we blame the kids for setting us off, but we are being just as childlike in our reactions as they are. Only they ARE the kids. They are not mini adults, and they haven't learned to switch between reactions and rational thought. Learning to control reactions is actually something we have to learn. The pathways have to develop in the brain. Many adults don't have this function very developed. We too, have to consciously pull ourselves out of just reacting, and think, "Am I contributing to making this worse?" Mostly we are!

Part Four Follows . . . .

Turning Bad Behavior Around - Part Four
by: Annie Desantis

Now how do you deal with the bad behavior? At the moment you are probably constantly on her back about everything. I would guess almost every interaction with her is not positive. "Hurry up; don't do that; be quiet; stop annoying the baby; pick that up; I told you to . . . " etc etc.

Sit down with your partner on your own (hard I know with lots of kids around!) but go through and categorize the bad behavior (and it won't just be your daughter)

There are really three types of bad behaviour:

1) Annoying - like making loud noises, kicking the furniture while at the table, teasing etc.

2) NOT doing something you have asked, like tidying up or drying the dishes.

3) Doing something you DON'T want, like swearing at you, smashing up the house.

You are actually better to try to just ignore the behavior in the first category. These are the kinds of things that would easily escalate and turn into category threes when you add energy to it. Use those times as a reminder to you to focus on something positive, do something to distract her, like ask her what was the best thing that happened at school today, but definitely don't react negatively. If you need to, leave the room so you can switch your energy and are not getting more and more annoyed, then do it!

Those kinds of annoying behavior is her telling you she want some attention, so don't reinforce negative attention. Instead tell her something positive you noticed she did. Remind her you have your special time after dinner and has she thought about what she wants to do.

More often than not, category threes are an escalation of the way you deal with ones and twos. The category threes will become less and less once you rebuild a positive relationship. But it will take some time, don't expect it to happen overnight, and there will be relapses when you react back or when she tests you.

How do you deal with Category Twos? Again, don't contribute to it escalating. Instead of being confrontational and bossy, make it a game, try to make it fun. When we come down heavy with kids they have nowhere to go but to push back.

The more you make things fun and exciting and silly, then the more you diffuse potential flares. Have a race, sing silly songs while doing the dishes, pretend to be the queen. Anything to shift the energy to something uplifting. Life is full of chores and things that have to get done, and with busy households there can be very little time for having fun with our kids. But really you can turn every activity into an opportunity for having some fun with the kids, and that way you are increasing the amount of positive energy in the family.

Part Five Follows . . . .

Turn Bad Behavior Around - Part 5
by: Annie Desantis

Another thing to note, be mindful of how you talk about your daughter. At the moment, every time you talk about her to anyone you are probably complaining about how awful she is. Again, that is contributing to keep her behaving badly. Make a point to either bite your tounge, or start telling people she is doing much better, that you are working well with it, that you are having a lovely time with her. Of course you need times to let of steam, but don't make it bigger, switch it around to focusing on what you do want with her.

One more thing: You and your partner are probably running on empty. Take care of yourself and take care of your relationship so you have the energy to deal with the family.

Find ways to get some time out for you to feel you are getting replenished, and find ways that you can have some fun together. Just like your daughter, you need to focus on positives in your relationship. Make a list of all the things you appreciate about each other, think back to why you fell in love in the first place. Keep reinforcing the good stuff and try to minimize the bad. If you take care of yourselves then you have more energy to focus on switching the family dynamic.

I know it is hard when you have such a busy life and a big family. But find even little ways that you can re-energize yourself. Maybe a walk on your own for 15 minutes, maybe a bath without interruptions, maybe an afternoon nap. Meet a friend for coffee, or take a class in something. You need to have things that fill you up and give you some positive energy to spread back through your family.

So make it your focus to deliberately look for positives, be creative about having fun, and minimize your own reactions to her bad behavior. I think you will find you will develop a loving strong happy relationship with your daughter and the harmony in the family will be greatly improved.

All the best,
Annie Desantis

In Response
by: katie

Thanks very much,
I will try out your advice!!!!
My daughter loves my partner very much, she never speaks to him the way she does me and I'm wondering if maybe it has to do with not seeing her birth father?? But I can't change him on seeing her but always let her know that she is very loved and has even more love since my partner came along.

Birth Father Issue
by: Annie Desantis

Katie, she may well have some stuff around her birth father, but as you say she loves your partner as a father. The whole thing around not seeing her birth father maybe something she will need to deal with as she gets older, or perhaps as an adult. Since you say you have no control over her having access to him, then it is not something you can do much about, except let her explore how she feels if the topic comes up.

No matter how close a relationship with a step father, there will always be a bit of a gap, not knowing that part of herself. But it doesn't necessarily mean that is what is behind her behavior at the moment. It may be a factor though, in that unconsciously she may feel rejected by her birth father, and now perhaps not feeling so special to you.

My thinking is she is reacting to her position in the family and how she perceives that to have changed, and even though you love her, somehow she is not taking that on board. When child gets a lot of negative attention then even when you say you love them, they don't absorb it. Your actions will speak louder to her. I am sure you will see a shift over the next few months as you all practice reinforcing the good behavior, and finding ways to give her quality positive attention.

Let us know how it all goes!
Wishing you well,
Annie D

My Son Was Out Of Control
by: Rach


I know just what you are going through, my eight year old son turned into destruction boy around aged seven.

My husband and I had split up about 12 months before, so he had gone through a lot of changes and boy was he ANGRY! He would swear and smash things. I never even knew where he learned the swear words, we have never used bad language around him!

I was not coping very well myself so that didn't help, and in hindsight I think the fact that Mommy wasn't happy, contributed to him going off the rails.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, we started using the Super Skills 4 Kids program from this website and what a huge difference it has made in our lives. I have learned more than Ryan I think, it has made me think about how I behave under crisis. He still has a few meltdowns, but we have only been working on the course for a couple of months, and I know it is something I will come back to when we need it.

It might be something you can do with your daughter.

Good luck!

Thanks For Your Comment On Super Skills 4 Kids
by: Annie Desantis


Thanks for letting us know how Super Skills 4 Kids is helping you Rach.

In Katie's case, it may not be suitable at this stage. Super Skills is very much child centered, in that the child chooses what skill they need to learn.

So although working on it together gives a great positive focus, the child has to be the one who decides what they want to work on. I doubt Katie's daughter would be wanting to at this stage.

It sounds to me like there needs to be some rebuilding of the relationship first. I think Katie's little girl might just see it as more evidence that she is the bad one, whereas I think she needs some positive reinforcing first, then she might acknowledge that her behavior is not getting her what she wants, and she might be wiling to learn some skills that would work better for her.

However, I am only going on what Katie has written in, so only she would be able to assess if it would be helpful at this stage.

Thanks for your comment, it is always helpful for other parents to know they are not the only one struggling with out of control behaviour!

All the best,
Annie Desantis

My Son's Behaviour
by: Debbie

OMG!!! I wish I had seen this 2 years ago, my son was 9 at the time and I almost got to the point where I hated him.

My relationship with my boyfriend (not his father) did end over it all so I just want to say to the lady with the daughter, listen to what Annie is saying and try to fix the relationship with your girl.

My boyfriend was part of the problem in our case, and because I was so stressed with his drinking, and my son's crazy behaviour, I nearly went nuts myself.

I've since learned my son was acting up because of what was happening at home, and it sure got that the only way he got any attention was if one of us was yelling at him or punishing him.

He was also really bad at school too, and it wasn't until I got some counseling to help me cope, I started to realize he was showing us there was a problem.

My boyfriend (ex now!) ended up leaving, blaming my son, but has since got some help himself and has stopped drinking and now has said he knows it was not the boys fault. He now visits him like a father would - he had been with us since my boy was 18mths.

So in the end it has worked out for the best, but I still have to work on making the relationship with my boy more positive. It is easy to slip into old patterns and if I am tired or stressed, take it out on him.

I'm going to try some of the things Annie told you about, it makes a lot of sense to me, I wish someone had told me things ages ago, sometimes it seems we have to learn the hard way!

Good luck with your daughter

Kids Behavior Highlights Family Problems
by: Annie Desantis

Thanks for your comment Debbie,

It is amazing how our kids are often the barometer for what is happening in the family. They tend to pick up very quickly when we are out of sync, and often we make it worse by reacting badly ourselves. Then a negative cycle can start.

Congratulations on getting some counseling, it is often really valuable to have someone neutral who can help us learn to handle family conflict better, or look after ourselves.

Relationships and Parenting is not always easy and getting some time out and a fresh perspective on the situation can be incredibly helpful.

Well done on focusing on improving your relationship with your son, there is a lot of joy to be had in a happy positive relationship with a child. And they grow up so quickly!

All the best,
Annie Desantis

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