An excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z
Our seven year-old is very bright, social, and out going. She is very daring and often makes decisions that escalate into more than they started out being. For example, when she's doing something like talking back she doesn't know when to stop she become so over the top frustrated that then she starts getting defiant when she is told to go to her room etc...She has a you can't get me kinda attitude. I'm sure she is just pushing it off or hiding the hurt. How do we help her? I recognize that we all make bad decisions. I'd like to teach her how to recognize the bad decision and apologize etc before she makes it worse.
My name is Laurie Prusso. In my real life, I am the mother of six sons and grandmother of six too. I am also an instructor of child development at a community college in California. I am happy to respond to your letter asking for help with your very bright seven-year-old daughter.
It sounds like your daughter has some very good skills. You say that she is bright, social and out going. Those are great traits. What you might not think is so great is that she is also daring and makes decisions that you are not happy with.
Children are very good at trying to get what they need. When they try things that don't work well, they sometimes get more determined. It is as if they are saying, "How can I get what I need (want)? I'm so frustrated!" And they don't say it with words, but with their behavior, and we are expected to interpret the behavior.
You also say that she "talks back" and doesn't know when to stop. It sounds like it gets out of hand and she becomes defiant when you exercise your authority to put a stop to it. You also express your concern that through her attitude, she is pushing it off, or hiding the hurt. Every parent, like you, is concerned with teaching children how to make appropriate and effective decisions. In fact, your daughter sounds pretty normal and very assertive. Those are good things, even if we sometimes don't like the assertiveness.
Let's take the behaviors one at a time. First you are worried that she is very daring and makes decisions that escalate. It sounds like you are concerned about her safety, but I am not sure. If it is her safety that concerns you, here are some ideas. Children are, above all, striving for connection and significance. They want to be sure of our love and acceptance. I know that might sound contrary to what you experience when she behaves in these ways, but stick with me. If her temperament is that of a risk taker, or one that pushes things to the limit, I suggest that you help her understand her own skill and power. These are characteristics that will serve her well as an adult. You don't want to extinguish them, but help her learn how to use them appropriately.
A seven-year-old is mature enough for you to use a technique called problem solving. Briefly, you can sit down with her at a "non-crisis" time and talk about your concerns. It might be the risk taking, the talking back, the getting frustrated or the attitude. Any of these may be addressed with this process. Then listen to her share her perspective and her feelings. Use an effective listening technique. It might be that she feels capable of things that you are not comfortable with. When my boys climbed trees, they always went higher than I thought they should go! You can negotiate, respecting her need to be in charge of her body and the space it is in, and your need for keeping her safe. Together, you can come to an agreement.
The problem solving process is a mutually respectful activity. She hears you and you hear her. Then you can each suggest ideas for appropriate behavior. This is a time for you to really see your child's perspective of herself and her relationship with you. You may feel more comfortable with her daring behavior if she convinces you that she knows how high to go, or when to stop, or how to express her opinion kindly and appropriately. I have found that it is a good practice to select an idea that my child has shared. It empowers them to want to be successful.
Using the problem solving process will help to develop and improve your relationship with her as well. It is fun to have a snack when you are talking, and to record, either in writing, or with pictures, what you have negotiated. More information on this process can be found in Positive Discipline, by Jane Nelsen, which is available through in libraries, bookstores, or the website www.positivediscipline.com
Talking back seems to be every parent's number "1" item on the list of worst behaviors. I have a different perspective. Most of the time, talking back is a child expressing his or her perspective or opinion. "But I don't want to stop," or "I don't want to wear a coat," are examples. Sometimes parents tell me, "I just want him to do what he is told."
What I wanted most for my children was for them to grow up to be dynamic, responsible, self-sufficient adults, and to have integrity. Integrity requires honesty. As a young parent, when I thought they "needed" a jacket, but they were not cold and they tried to tell me, I got very upset with them and perceived it as disrespectful to me for them to talk back. At some point, I realized that they really were not cold. If they couldn't even tell me that without getting in trouble, how could they grow up to be honest and to have integrity?
I was asking them to do something that was inconsistent with what they felt, and I wouldn't even let them tell me about it! I realized then that more than I wanted compliance, I wanted them to be honest and to be in harmony with their own needs, so I needed to be willing to listen to them.
Now the problem was teaching them to disagree respectfully, because it still wasn't appropriate for them to yell at me, nor I at them. As a parent, I needed to help them learn how to speak respectfully, even when they were disagreeing with me, or someone else.
Imagine how it would feel if you disagreed with a friend because you had a difference of opinion, or a different goal, and she told you, "Stop that now. I have decided what we are going to do and your opinion doesn't count." Perhaps you would feel humiliated and insignificant. How does a child feel when she is not able to express her thoughts and feelings?
Now, I have to be clear that expressing thoughts and feelings doesn't guarantee getting your way. You can respectfully listen, validate her opinion and desires, and then either negotiate with her or follow through on your request.
Often what happens is that the "talking back" is escalated by the adult as we try to convince the child of our opinion or get her to act on our request or simply address the talking back instead of the original issue. Following through is another skill that will help you. Listen respectfully to your daughter, validating her feelings and thoughts. Make your decision and then follow through without arguing, engaging, blaming, or escalating the issue. You can read more about following through in Positive Discipline as well.
Sometimes children talk disrespectfully because they are copying the way their parents speak to them. I have a friend who tried something that worked very well. She and her daughter agreed (during a problem-solving session) that when either of them got into an argument (talking disrespectfully) they would see who could be the first to pat her heart, which was their signal for "I love you." My friend said it was almost embarrassing that her daughter was usually the first to pat her heart. In any case, it was a reminder to both of them that they love each other and to remember to speak respectfully to each other.
It sounds like your daughter, in addition to being a risk taker, is intense and persistent. These too are wonderful traits and very desirable in adult life. But in the parent-child role they can be challenging. Your daughter needs you to provide limits and she also needs you to provide her some space. She will need to develop very effective coping skills in order to be successful with her friends and in school. You can help her do this by recognizing when she can be reasoned with and when she can't. My guess is that making "head-to-head" demands of her isn't very effective. Talking about things ahead of time and giving her an opportunity to participate in decisions that affect her will facilitate her skills and improve your relationship with her.
It might help if some things are negotiated and become her responsibility, and you can turn them over to her. As she grows and matures, she can be responsible for more and more of her behavior and eventually, her own life. Children need lots and lots of practice in order to become adults. If we try to control and direct all of their activities and decisions, they cannot make mistakes in the wonderfully safe environment of our homes and under the umbrella of our love.
You say that you are sure she is pushing it off or hiding the hurt. Those are behaviors that might suggest that she feels discouraged. Discouragement is an awful feeling. When I am discouraged, I usually am not at my best. It is harder for me to be sensitive to what others want or need and I am not very motivated. In fact, I sometimes feel like I need to be aggressive and protect myself.
Discouragement occurs when we feel like we have to struggle for our place, our security, and our connections. If you and your daughter are engaged in these power struggles frequently, this may be a sign that she feels discouraged. I can tell from your letter that you are very concerned. You probably would prefer it if your daughter was encouraged. Since you are the adult, and she is the child, and you have this information, you can make a difference in your relationship with her.
Lastly, apologies are something that must come from the heart. Sometimes when we feel sorry for something we hug someone or smile at them, and sometimes we say "I'm sorry." Whenever we are compelled or commanded to "be sorry" it is usually a bad fit. Our emotions tell us one thing and the words we are expected to say tell another. For me it is one of those honesty, integrity things.
The best way to teach our children empathy is to live it and demonstrate it with our actions. Our children usually grow up to be like us and to do what we do. Developing your relationship will do more to induce her feelings of empathy than will expecting or requesting her to be sorry or to say that she is sorry.
As you refer to the ideas and skills in Positive Discipline, you will find specific ways to adapt your actions to fit her needs. As you enhance your relationship with your daughter, you will find that she is encouraged. As she feels encouraged, she will become more responsive to you. The relationship dance is a beautiful opportunity to love and grow together. She will, as a matter of course, make better decisions, partly because the need to defy you will diminish. With your support, she will grow into a young woman and then an adult who can make her own decisions, and who has a great relationship with her mother.
I'm sorry, I don't know where you live, but Positive Discipline classes are offered in some areas of the U.S. You can check the website for sessions that might be near you. You may also want to try one of our self-study packages.
I wish you the best, Laurie
Thank you for your response. I agree with you that the qualities our daughter has are great! More than anything.....I just want her to learn to disagree without getting so fired up. You are right . As adults we are allowed to disagree all the time. I'll start with the book. And thank you for your detailed response. We are in California too. In the Bay Area. What a great place.