Daughter picks fights with mom

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 18, 2010 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

My wife and I having a very stressful time with our 9-year-old daughter and her crazy mood swings.

She is swinging wildly between loving us and hating us, and we are at wits end.  It's not completely new but seems more frequent and more intense lately.  Most of the negative feelings are directed toward my wife, and my observation is that most of the time it's precipitated by some kind of clothing issue (she doesn't want to where this or that, hates wearing skirts then loves skirts the next day, wants to where short sleeve t-shirts to school when it's 10 degrees out, etc.).

Here is an example.  She wants to wear a particular leotard to her gymnastics practice that is clearly too big for her right now so my wife says she can't because it's too big.  My daughter tells her she hates her, she's the worst mother ever, and physically tries to rip the leotard out of my wife's hand.  Fast forward three hours and she comes home and my wife is upstairs so she's not there to greet her.  She wants to know where my wife is, is she feeling alright, she wants to go check on her, gives her a kiss and tells her she loves her.  All signs to me that she regrets acting the way she did but still such a 180-degree turn that it concerns me.

She will never apologize on her own and is so stubborn that taking things away as a form of punishment doesn't work very well.  I took her iPod, which she loves, away for two weeks and she never once asked for it back.  She's very active with sports, very creative with arts and crafts, has lots of friends, and does well at school, so nothing concerns me there.  One possibility that I'm considering is she found a couple of her baby teeth a few weeks back while snooping around and told us that she knows there is no tooth fairy.  We didn't admit to anything but didn't exactly deny it either. I'm wondering if she's somewhat angry about her discovery and this may be at the root of why her behavior has gotten worse lately.

Obviously we're petrified of what she'll be like when she's a teenager if she's like this at 9, but I'm just wondering what you think.

Thanks for your help,

From: Doyboy, Reading, Ma

Hi Doyboy,

Welcome to your daughter's adolescence. But she's only 9? Funny thing about that....

You've heard the line that teenagers are getting younger all the time? The onset of puberty is happening at younger ages, mostly due to better over-all nutrition and health care. None of us expect it quite this young, but I bet that what's going on for your daughter has a lot to do with raging hormones.

In this stage of development -- and brace yourselves, it lasts a while -- mother and daughter are typically either worst enemies or best friends. What's more, it can turn on a dime. The good news is that these periods of intense ups and downs can ebb and flow; there are plenty of calm times in between. Oh yeah, there's one more thing: the stronger the relationship going into this stage, the worse the stage itself is likely to be.

What typically fuels all this is a complicated ambivalence: On the one hand, a girl wants to separate from mom. On the other hand, she still wants to feel connected to mom. So she goes about it by finding fault with mom ("You're so stupid! You dress like an old lady!"). That helps her feel independent and it reassures her, "Phew, I'm not like that!"  And yet, later, (sometimes minutes later), she feels the need for connection and wants to cozy up, seemingly without seeing any contradiction.

The mom's task, of course, is to maintain the relationship without taking any of this personally. Need I say that this isn't so easy? It's a dizzying balancing act where a mom has to be careful not to smother her daughter but also not to back off so much the daughter feels neglected; where she has to show interest in her daughter but not feel a stake in every piece of her; where she has to maintain the intimacy but encourage independence.

So what does this looks like day-to-day? She wants to wear flip-flops in the snow? "Gee, I think you'll be really cold. But it's your body and you know how it feels better than I do. Can we compromise? What if you take shoes in your backpack, in case you decide your feet are cold?" That's telling your daughter, "I don't agree with you but I trust your judgment enough to let you see for yourself." That's huge for a girl this age. It also gives her a graceful way to back down and to be in control of that backing down.

Another line I like a lot when a preteen (this works for boys as well) is pushing to do something you're not sure she's ready for: "Let's try it and see how it goes." Along with that goes a promise to analyze the situation together after.

None of what I'm suggesting means you are ceding parental control. You still need to set limits, but it's OK to negotiate some of them. Part of what a preteen wants at this stage is to feel consulted, to feel respected, and to have you acknowledge to her that you know she's not a little girl anymore.

Mother-daughter relationships is a huge topic. I've only touched on some of the issues. I guess the bottom line is to recognize this for a stage, to keep your sense of humor and your sense of perspective, and to talk to other mothers who are also going through this. By the way, just to throw another monkey wrench into the mix, if mom is going through menopause at the same time a daughter is going through menstruation, the surging hormones on both sides can make this an even more difficult time.

Books you might find helpful: "How to Say It to Girls: Communicating With Your Growing Daughter" by Nancy Gruver; "Before she gets her period," by Jessica B. Gillooly; and this one, to read with your daughter as a way to keep the communication open, ''Getting to Know the Real You: 50 Fun Quizzes Just for Girls" by Harriet Mosatche and her daughter, Elizabeth K. Lawner. There are lots of other worthwhile books out there, too, I'd love to hear from some moms about books they've liked and, of course, to hear how they've handled what Doyboy describes.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.




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13 comments so far...
  1. My son attends a Waldorf school, and one of the phenomena noted in this pedagogical/development approach is the 'nine year change'. I thought it was nonsense until my very sweet, sensitive boy turned into a demanding, petulant tyrant (with alternate reversions back to his gentle, loving former self). As Barbara indicates, I think this is sort of a 'practice adolescence' - another stage in the separation from parents and assertion of self. Remember the 2 - 3 year old stage, when your little darling tantrum-ed if not allowed to wear the tutu to swim lessons? Same thing, in nine year old form.

    Once I realized that this was a normal, appropriate set of behaviors I stopped freaking out and listened to my son. I gave him control over things that were appropriate for him to control, yet maintained boundaries - which was something that he really needed.

    My son is ten now, and is back to his previous happy, calm self - very few outbursts (and when he has them they are very brief - he has learned to contain himself), lots of joy and energy, and a new maturity in his understanding of himself and others. So you may have a respite, once your daughter works through this stage, before encountering the full intensity of adolescence.

    Posted by Cathy February 18, 10 10:14 AM
  1. My very smart, sensitive son is almost nine and a half, and I have been saying for a few months that he has an attitude like a teenage girl! Hopefully I will have the same experience as Cathy and he will go back to "normal" soon.

    Posted by Michelle February 18, 10 10:51 AM
  1. Reindeergirl didn't say that she found religious groups offensive -- she just said that they didn't work for her because she's not religious. However, I would caution against the tone she takes in the rest of her post -- this whole "I COULD judge you for being less awesome than me for the following reasons, but because I'm so awesome I won't" thing is just silly. Moms are constantly abused in the media. We shouldn't tear each other down too. If the group you're with sends you home in tears each time, stop attending it at once and seek out some real friends! Don't keep attending while inwardly seething and judging the heck out of the other moms.

    Posted by ez February 18, 10 12:45 PM
  1. Did I read this right? She has a tantrum over a leotard and gets to go to practice anyway? I think you have been taking away the wrong things. If you take away her activity, you may find most of this behavior will magically disappear. Oh, yes, you pay for gynmastics. I know. I pay for it too. But shoving her out the door and ignoring her return won't solve this. She's nine. She's doing the 180 because you're not laying down the law and she feels insecure once her anger has passed. You need to parent her.

    Posted by kmira February 18, 10 12:46 PM
  1. kmira, are you kidding me? "You need to parent her." ?? That's a horrible thing to write. What exactly do you think the letter writer is trying to do here? Your overly-simplistic advice (Do you really think her behavior will "magically disappear" if it's motivated by conflicting desires for independence and reassurance? Even if that one issue "disappears," don't you think it will manifest in some other way?) and your superior tone really lend nothing to the discussion.

    Posted by m. February 18, 10 02:01 PM
  1. Don't for get about the book Queen Bees and Wanna Bees by Rosiland Wiesman.

    Posted by LL February 18, 10 02:40 PM
  1. kmira, I agree wholeheartedly.

    M., no, she doesn't believe that her behavior will "magically disappear," but guess what? Punishing a child for disrespectful and defiant behavior works, plain and simple

    Posted by mf February 18, 10 05:55 PM
  1. I agree with Barbara's suggestions. Parenting means choosing between which battles to fight. Teachers and daycare providers deal with this on an hourly basis. Pick the battles that absolutely must be fought, and the others-compromise.

    Mom can bring her to pick out a couple new leotards that fit, then get ice cream together or go to the playground for a while together.

    She still needs attention even though she wants some independence. Plan activities alone with her, one afternoon with mom, one afternoon with dad. Help her feel special and it doesn't have to cost anything. Let her help decide what dinner is going to be and then have her help cook.

    Posted by Karrie February 18, 10 07:05 PM
  1. I know it was likely just used as an example, but if your daughter wants to wear a particular leotard that happens to be a bit big, why not just simply allow her to wear it? Must your wife wield her C-O-N-T-R-O-L so mightily that she cannot allow a 9-year-old to make her own decision about wearing something that might be (horrors!) a bit larger than ideal?

    My point is that it seems like your wife is worsening a power struggle that doesn't need to happen at all. A too-large leotard is not dangerous, or unhealthy, or even disrespectful. Let the girl "win" a few rounds and maybe she won't need to dig her heels in so deeply, you know? It's just a leotard.

    Posted by Amanda February 18, 10 08:41 PM
  1. Being a parent, regardless of age, lends nothing to the discussion? Good, "old-fashioned" parenting lends nothing to a 9-yr-old's behavior? I think not. The child is clearly going through am emotional time. Label it what you will. Parenting a child, at any age, means establishing common respect, and if this child cannot do that within the household, measures must be taken. A 9-yr-old child, cries that she hates her mother, physically tears away from her. Is that OK? No. A parent should keep her from gymnastics, allow for her time to settle, and begina discussion. Only then does aprent receieve their merit.

    Posted by kmira February 18, 10 10:29 PM
  1. Oh, I see, Globe. You only want Liberal Child-rearing techinques. Sure, dismiss my 2 former posts. Gotcha. I want only to incorporate "old-school" parenting back because it works. I love my daughters, and they love me - I do not give advice that I have not already taken. But thanks for keeping me out of the threshold - I'll be counseling kids like this 9-yr-old, and the parents willl wonder, "Where did we go wrong? We gave her everything."

    Posted by kmira February 19, 10 01:47 AM
  1. Hi, Kmira. Your other two posts are live, just got caught in the spam filter. No offense!

    Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse Author Profile Page February 19, 10 12:33 PM
  1. I agree with Amanda - the leotard is not a battle worth fighting and Kmira, your "old-school" parenting sounds to me like one way respect, not common respect. The "you'll do it because I said so" school of parenting will only become a battle of wills and backfire on you if you have a particularly stubborn child. My mother attended that school and all it did was make me resentful and damage our relationship. I struggle with using missing sports practice as a consequence and not because I'm paying dearly for it. On one hand, it's the one thing that will truly make an impact but on the other, my boys NEED to be active for their mental as well as physical well being.

    Posted by cordelia February 22, 10 11:21 PM
 
13 comments so far...
  1. My son attends a Waldorf school, and one of the phenomena noted in this pedagogical/development approach is the 'nine year change'. I thought it was nonsense until my very sweet, sensitive boy turned into a demanding, petulant tyrant (with alternate reversions back to his gentle, loving former self). As Barbara indicates, I think this is sort of a 'practice adolescence' - another stage in the separation from parents and assertion of self. Remember the 2 - 3 year old stage, when your little darling tantrum-ed if not allowed to wear the tutu to swim lessons? Same thing, in nine year old form.

    Once I realized that this was a normal, appropriate set of behaviors I stopped freaking out and listened to my son. I gave him control over things that were appropriate for him to control, yet maintained boundaries - which was something that he really needed.

    My son is ten now, and is back to his previous happy, calm self - very few outbursts (and when he has them they are very brief - he has learned to contain himself), lots of joy and energy, and a new maturity in his understanding of himself and others. So you may have a respite, once your daughter works through this stage, before encountering the full intensity of adolescence.

    Posted by Cathy February 18, 10 10:14 AM
  1. My very smart, sensitive son is almost nine and a half, and I have been saying for a few months that he has an attitude like a teenage girl! Hopefully I will have the same experience as Cathy and he will go back to "normal" soon.

    Posted by Michelle February 18, 10 10:51 AM
  1. Reindeergirl didn't say that she found religious groups offensive -- she just said that they didn't work for her because she's not religious. However, I would caution against the tone she takes in the rest of her post -- this whole "I COULD judge you for being less awesome than me for the following reasons, but because I'm so awesome I won't" thing is just silly. Moms are constantly abused in the media. We shouldn't tear each other down too. If the group you're with sends you home in tears each time, stop attending it at once and seek out some real friends! Don't keep attending while inwardly seething and judging the heck out of the other moms.

    Posted by ez February 18, 10 12:45 PM
  1. Did I read this right? She has a tantrum over a leotard and gets to go to practice anyway? I think you have been taking away the wrong things. If you take away her activity, you may find most of this behavior will magically disappear. Oh, yes, you pay for gynmastics. I know. I pay for it too. But shoving her out the door and ignoring her return won't solve this. She's nine. She's doing the 180 because you're not laying down the law and she feels insecure once her anger has passed. You need to parent her.

    Posted by kmira February 18, 10 12:46 PM
  1. kmira, are you kidding me? "You need to parent her." ?? That's a horrible thing to write. What exactly do you think the letter writer is trying to do here? Your overly-simplistic advice (Do you really think her behavior will "magically disappear" if it's motivated by conflicting desires for independence and reassurance? Even if that one issue "disappears," don't you think it will manifest in some other way?) and your superior tone really lend nothing to the discussion.

    Posted by m. February 18, 10 02:01 PM
  1. Don't for get about the book Queen Bees and Wanna Bees by Rosiland Wiesman.

    Posted by LL February 18, 10 02:40 PM
  1. kmira, I agree wholeheartedly.

    M., no, she doesn't believe that her behavior will "magically disappear," but guess what? Punishing a child for disrespectful and defiant behavior works, plain and simple

    Posted by mf February 18, 10 05:55 PM
  1. I agree with Barbara's suggestions. Parenting means choosing between which battles to fight. Teachers and daycare providers deal with this on an hourly basis. Pick the battles that absolutely must be fought, and the others-compromise.

    Mom can bring her to pick out a couple new leotards that fit, then get ice cream together or go to the playground for a while together.

    She still needs attention even though she wants some independence. Plan activities alone with her, one afternoon with mom, one afternoon with dad. Help her feel special and it doesn't have to cost anything. Let her help decide what dinner is going to be and then have her help cook.

    Posted by Karrie February 18, 10 07:05 PM
  1. I know it was likely just used as an example, but if your daughter wants to wear a particular leotard that happens to be a bit big, why not just simply allow her to wear it? Must your wife wield her C-O-N-T-R-O-L so mightily that she cannot allow a 9-year-old to make her own decision about wearing something that might be (horrors!) a bit larger than ideal?

    My point is that it seems like your wife is worsening a power struggle that doesn't need to happen at all. A too-large leotard is not dangerous, or unhealthy, or even disrespectful. Let the girl "win" a few rounds and maybe she won't need to dig her heels in so deeply, you know? It's just a leotard.

    Posted by Amanda February 18, 10 08:41 PM
  1. Being a parent, regardless of age, lends nothing to the discussion? Good, "old-fashioned" parenting lends nothing to a 9-yr-old's behavior? I think not. The child is clearly going through am emotional time. Label it what you will. Parenting a child, at any age, means establishing common respect, and if this child cannot do that within the household, measures must be taken. A 9-yr-old child, cries that she hates her mother, physically tears away from her. Is that OK? No. A parent should keep her from gymnastics, allow for her time to settle, and begina discussion. Only then does aprent receieve their merit.

    Posted by kmira February 18, 10 10:29 PM
  1. Oh, I see, Globe. You only want Liberal Child-rearing techinques. Sure, dismiss my 2 former posts. Gotcha. I want only to incorporate "old-school" parenting back because it works. I love my daughters, and they love me - I do not give advice that I have not already taken. But thanks for keeping me out of the threshold - I'll be counseling kids like this 9-yr-old, and the parents willl wonder, "Where did we go wrong? We gave her everything."

    Posted by kmira February 19, 10 01:47 AM
  1. Hi, Kmira. Your other two posts are live, just got caught in the spam filter. No offense!

    Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse Author Profile Page February 19, 10 12:33 PM
  1. I agree with Amanda - the leotard is not a battle worth fighting and Kmira, your "old-school" parenting sounds to me like one way respect, not common respect. The "you'll do it because I said so" school of parenting will only become a battle of wills and backfire on you if you have a particularly stubborn child. My mother attended that school and all it did was make me resentful and damage our relationship. I struggle with using missing sports practice as a consequence and not because I'm paying dearly for it. On one hand, it's the one thing that will truly make an impact but on the other, my boys NEED to be active for their mental as well as physical well being.

    Posted by cordelia February 22, 10 11:21 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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