My daughter is selfish and insufferable

Tell Me About It: Her recent behaviour – ignorant, emotionally lazy, lying at the drop of a hat, disrespectful – has left me reeling

Illustration: Thinkstock

Illustration: Thinkstock

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QUESTION: I have a number of adult children, including a daughter (24) who is very good-looking and very successful, career-wise. But I find her unbearable in terms of how she carries on. In a nutshell, she is insufferable.

Why? Well she never cares or bothers about anyone except herself. Every problem she has is offloaded to family members, including her brother, who suffers from mental-health problems and is clearly vulnerable. Sometimes her brother seems like her slave. All she has to say is “can you do me a favour?” and he jumps to attention and attends to her every whim.

I am guilty, too, I have to admit. Whatever she has needed, over many years, I have jumped to get for her, to smooth her path.

Her recent behaviour – ignorant, emotionally lazy, lying at the drop of a hat, disrespectful – has left me reeling. In theory I should detach. Live my own life. But it is very hard to do this when I see her siblings suffering so badly because of her actions.

I want to be a good mother to her and her siblings. Yet I feel I have failed miserably. Have you any advice?

ADVICE: You sound as though you are very involved with your daughter, which shows a genuine love and concern. However, you are frustrated, angry and disappointed with her as well.

This is a very complicated emotional response. You are right in thinking that the first step for you is to detach somewhat before you can come up with a strategy that might challenge and help this situation. Detaching by becoming more involved in your own life will offer you access to your intelligence and experience, and it might model good behaviour for your other children, particularly your son.

Detaching does not mean giving up on your daughter. On the contrary, it might actually allow something new and more successful to happen. As always, we need to take the proverbial plank out of our own eyes first before taking it out of another’s.

It sounds as though all of you have been complicit in the creation of the current situation: your son has behaved in a “slave-like” manner, and you too have jumped too high for her. I wonder what is behind your behaviour over the years: is it a search for approval from her or is there a sense that she is more vulnerable or needy than the rest of you? Perhaps she has received a lot of reinforcement for offloading her problems on to other people, and this is a habit that has now served to make people want to avoid her.

Clearly your daughter has good points – she has a successful career and takes good care of her looks – so it seems she has the capacity and motivation to develop herself in these ways. The question is whether her family can harness these qualities to enhance her emotional intelligence. Indeed, added to this is whether the family is willing or motivated enough to put time and energy into challenging this situation. The motivation here is that everyone will benefit: your daughter will benefit by becoming a more rounded person, your son by learning that giving in is not a good thing to have in any relationship and you by letting go of resentment and disappointment.

Can all of you in the family get together and agree that things need to change? If you are all operating from the same position, there is a better chance of success.

The first thing to ask yourselves is: what in your own lives has influenced you to become better people? It is unlikely that you worked harder or tried harder if someone was constantly criticising you; in fact what probably got you to be better was someone having faith in you and putting the effort in to work with you to achieve your potential. So the first step is to change your own attitude from one of judgment to a real sense of conviction that change is possible.

Empathy can be learned and developed, and there is a lot of research to show that this quality is one that leads to success across life’s spectrum.

Being upfront with your daughter might be a good option: can you tell her that you all are embarking on improving empathy and that you have set up a reward system? If she shows empathy she gets approved of, and if she lacks it she can be asked to try again but this time with empathy. If it is done lightly, there is a possibility of her engaging in this. You could also practise empathy yourself and try to understand why she lies and is disrespectful; genuine curiosity on your part might uncover some issues worth working on.

If your daughter is not open to any of this, then at the very least be clear that, if she wants to participate in the family, she has to carry her share of the load. You may need patience and determination, but there will be opportunities now and in the future to leverage change.

  • Trish Murphy is a psychotherapist. Email tellmeaboutit@irishtimes.com for advice. We regret that personal correspondence cannot be entered into
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