Dear Dr. Meg,
When my six-year-old daughter gets into trouble, she will sometimes throw tantrums and make dramatic statements such as “You just hate me, don’t you!” “Ok, no TV for me forever!” or “You can just take all my things away!” She’s anticipating my usual disciplinary methods and them multiplying them by a thousand. How am I supposed to react to these dramatic statements? There’s always so much drama when she’s done the wrong thing and she’s in trouble. If I send her to her room to calm down, she either won’t go, or won’t stay there and if she does, there’s a lot of howling and carrying on (and lots of those drama queen statements!). It definitely happens more when she’s tired (like by Thursday afternoon during school week). I think it’s also attention seeking, although I feel that I give her as much attention as I can (which isn’t excessive, she has a little sister as well). I just don’t know how to teach her that it’s not the way to do it. She’s so well behaved anywhere else, and she is doing fantastically at school. Any suggestions?? I’m at a loss!
Mom Needing Answers
Dear Mom Needing Answers,
You have a strong–willed 6-year-old on your hands who completely understands that when she says these things or has her fits that it drives you crazy. That’s exactly why she does them. She knows how to push your buttons and it works.
Here’s what you need to do and it will work if you will stick to the plan.
First, stop over reading her. Why do you believe her when she says, “I hate you” or, “OK, no TV for me forever.” Letting her get to you is a huge mistake. Once you look at her and let her know that they don’t make you upset but that you have decided not to tolerate them, they will stop. She is being very manipulative and it’s working.
Second, calm down and refuse to let her rattle you with her tantrums, drama and bad speech, and take action. She needs to learn that you are more stubborn than she is and that you won’t tolerate her mean speech or yelling. Here’s what you need to do. Sit her down, look her in the eye and say, “You’re developing bad habits and I’m going to help you break them because they aren’t OK in our house. The bad habits are: yelling, saying mean things and throwing fits. From now on, if you do any of these things, you will go straight to your room until you calm down and stay that way for 15 minutes. Period. Do you understand?”
Then the stage is set. The next time she throws a fit, you take her to her room (carry her if you need to) and sit her on her bed. Then, close the door and leave the room. Sit right outside her door so that when she tries to leave, you close it again. She may kick the door, yell and appear to have panic attacks. Do not let her out. You might even need to lock her door. When she screams, you stay silent, don’t reason with her or tell her to calm down. Just stay there. No arguing. If she slams the door and she says, “I hate you, you’re the meanest mother in the world!” the door stays shut. Warning: be ready to sit outside the door for two or more hours. I’m serious, she will scream as long as it takes to get you frustrated so that you’ll break. YOU CANNOT. The lesson that she must learn is this: when it comes to being stubborn, she’s out of her league. You are the Mom and nothing rattles you. In fact, you will go to any length to make sure that when you tell her to do something, you mean it. If it takes all day and you have to sit in front of the door all day, oh well.
Once she is calm, make her stay that way for 15 minutes. If she has really gotten worked up (some kids cry so hard that they pretend to choke, others might even hold their breath until they pass out!) she may even fall asleep of exhaustion. Remember, you are doing nothing cruel. You are simply forcing her to get herself under control. No hitting, yelling or name-calling.
Third, Repeat this scenario as often as necessary. I wish I could tell you that there is an easier way to train her out of this bad behavior but there isn’t. She’s a stubborn drama queen. (You also need to find her a play to be in or music to perform!) She’ll test you repeatedly to see how many times you’ll go through it and when she does, drop everything you are doing and sit by the door again.
Fourth, recognize that you can’t reason your way out of this. You want to explain to her why it benefits her to change her behavior and then watch her “choose” to be good. She won’t do this because she already knows how to be good; she is this way at school. This isn’t about being good, this is about her wanting control over you and you are eating it up. She knows just how to hook you and make you squirm. So stop squirming.
Finally, you need to get this under control now. She will break, I promise, if you do what I’m telling you to do. It always works and when it does, kids are much happier; they don’t want to have power over their parents. It makes them feel insecure and frightened. If you don’t get a handle on this now, you will one day face a 16-year-old with car keys in her hands yelling at you and running out the door in a fit. You must get her to obey you because at that age, a tantrum could kill her.
What your daughter needs is to see her mom with a backbone of steel. She wants to know that all of her bad behavior doesn’t rattle you, it simply makes you more resolved to make her break bad habits. Once you make the consequences for those bad habits more exhausting (and less fun) than the bad habits themselves, she’ll give up. So do it. That will be a great day for both of you.