As I’ve mentioned, Sammy is going through “a thing.” The symptoms include hitting me, yelling at me, delaying, defiance, crying, begging for hugs, saying I WANT DADDY all the time, anger, tantrums, giving orders such as, DON’T TALK, MOMMY, and about a million instances of the word, NO screamed at the top of her lungs. It’s gotten to the point where I’m afraid to talk to her at all because I’m actually afraid of how she might react. I find myself tensing up at every interaction and I am not enjoying her company much of the time.
I’ve tried a number of things with no real results. For a while I thought she was just missing her dad who was away on a business trip for a few days, but the more comfort I offered, the worse she behaved. I tried getting more strict with her and that helped a little bit, but not much. I redoubled my efforts to give her explanations, to give her time to process, and to offer choices, but that actually made things worse. I noticed that the more I talked, the more angry she would get so I tried talking less. That helped when I was silent, but the minute I would open my mouth, she’d flip out again. Even telling her, “I like your drawing,” would put me in danger of being attacked.
A few days ago, I had to physically force her to get dressed for school. I’ve had to force her into the car seat twice in the past week. I hadn’t had to do those things in a very long time and I realized that we needed to do something to snap out of it. I decided that I needed to do something new, even if all it did was to break the pattern that we’d been falling into. I tried to think of what the essential characteristic of all of her behavior has been, and I came to the conclusion that it is defiance. She is doing whatever she can come up with to thwart me. All of the other things are either variations of defiance (like delaying tactics) or consequences (like anger when she fails to get her way). I do feel like I’ve been “giving orders” to her a lot lately. Somehow, the things that she used to do on her own, or would do happily when I’d remind her, have become points of contention between us.
Faber and Mazlish have a whole section on engaging cooperation in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Instead of giving orders like “Get that wet towel off my bed!”, you can:
- Describe what you see: “There is a wet towel on the bed.”
- Give information: “The towel is getting my blanket wet.”
- Say it with a word: “The towel.”
- Describe what you feel: “I don’t like sleeping in a wet bed.”
- Write a note: “Please put me back so I can dry. Thanks, Your Towel.”
I use these techniques all the time but I still get the sense that she is bristling at being bossed around. I never tell her to do something simply because I say so. I’ve explained all the ways which it is in her own self interest to cooperate with me. We’ve talked about cooperation in general, and about specific issues. She agrees in the abstract but then doesn’t want to do it. I’ve stopped cooperating with her as a consequence to show her how we both need to work together. That works for 5 minutes then she’s back to her old ways. We use timers and schedules to help make transitions go smoothly and to minimize the need for me to give directions. But we’re still having this problem. So in addition to the techniques above, I decided to try a reward system, something I usually try to avoid. I created a “cooperation chart” for her, and she gets stars when she does a good job cooperating with me. I thought simply writing these things down might help because Sammy loves the written word, and she loves her written schedule. When I brought home the new whiteboard and magnets I would use for the cooperation chart, she squealed with delight, A NEW SCHEDULE, MOMMY! ANOTHER SCHEDULE!
Here is Sammy’s Cooperation Chart:
The tasks I listed are the areas where we’ve had the most conflict lately. “Follow instructions,” “Nice words,” and “No hitting” are things she needs to do all day long. (I added “Potty” to the list since we’re having so much trouble with that lately too. And right now, I do think that her not using the potty might be a cooperation issue.) I explained all of it and she was excited about it and agreed to try to cooperate.
We started using it yesterday and had our first mostly-good day in a long time. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will continue to help. I’m not sure we’ll keep using this chart indefinitely. I tend to think we just needed something to break us out of this cycle. It might change from a cooperation chart into a chore list at some point, or maybe something else. But for now, it seems to be working.
One other thing that I started at the same time and which is helping a lot is the use of humor. One time I told her, “Good job” about something she did and she flipped out. After she calmed down, I asked her if it made her mad when I said “Good job.” She said, YES, so I asked her with a grin, “Would you rather I told you you did a terrible job?” She cracked up. So for 2 days now, I’ve been using this humorous reverse psychology to great advantage. “Don’t you dare put your napkin in the trash, young lady!” “You did a really awful job using the potty.” “That underwear better stay right there on the floor or you’ll be in trouble.” Fun stuff. Sammy loves it, and there is no danger that she’ll confuse this with real instructions or anything serious. This technique can’t last forever either, but again, it helps to break up the serious stuff and the anger that had built up between us.
We’re having fun again.