My seven-year-old bursts into tears when I try to discipline her

Ask the Expert: She appears to over-react and get upset and has written me an apology note

If you criticise your daughter, it is important to direct your comments at her behaviour and not towards her personally.

Question: My older daughter is seven. Whenever I give out to her she tends to over-react and get very upset. I might be correcting her over something minor, like not tidying her room but then she starts crying and bursts into tears. The other day she even wrote me a note saying sorry and how she hates herself.

I don't give out to her any more or less than I do to her younger sister, who reacts very differently. If I give out or get angry with her younger sister she will just argue back and then she forgets about the row and is fine in a few minutes. However, my seven year old just cries and holds on to the row for ages after.

I should point out that I don’t give out that much to her, and certainly no more differently to how other parents do it. In fact, I tend to avoid giving out to her because of her reaction. But I can’t just let her away with things either, can I? That would not be fair to her sister.

But I am worried about her – the note saying she hated herself worried me.


Answer: Children – like their parents – are individuals and react very differently to criticism and rows. Some children like your elder daughter can be very sensitive and become upset by their parents' anger, whereas others like your younger daughter can fight their corner and "give as good as they get". Your eldest can take the criticism to heart and ruminate about it, while your youngest can let it go over her head and move on. As a result, rows and angry exchanges do have the potential to damage your eldest's self-esteem and strain your relationship with her. Saying she "hates herself" in a note is a sign of this. The good news is that she is communicating with you about how she feels and it is great that you are listening. Below are some ways you can help her.

- Criticise the behaviour, not the child

If you do criticise your daughter, it is important to direct your comments at her behaviour and not towards her personally. The message is “I love you”, I just “don’t like that behaviour”. This means you avoid making personal comments like “why are you so selfish, leaving your room so untidy – what is the matter with you” and rephrase this as “I don’t like the room being untidy, please clean it up” or “ you know Mum does not like a messy room”.

- Acknowledge your own feelings

It is normal as a parent to get frustrated at times and to feel anger at your children when they misbehave. However, it can be damaging to vent your feelings at your children so they experience your anger. Instead, it is more effective and more helpful to name and own your feelings. This might mean you say “I get annoyed when you leave your room untidy” or “I feel it is unfair when I have to clean your room”. The key is to acknowledge your feelings early (before you are in a rage) and to communicate about them in a relatively neutral tone.

- Press the pause button

When you find yourself getting angry and about to get into a row, it can be helpful to pause and take a step back. Maybe count to 10 or take a couple of slow and deep breaths. This helps you relax and gives you time to think of a better response. For example, rather than just expressing anger when her room is untidy, why not use a good consequence such as “no TV until you tidy your room”. Then you have to simply calmly wait and enforce the consequence. Alternatively, you can set up a positive reward to motivate her to tidy her room such as giving her stars on a chart which she can convert into a treat at the end of the week. The key to positive calm discipline is to choose the right rewards and consequences that matter to your child.

- Praise your child’s good behaviour

To help children change, it is far more effective to praise and reward good behaviour than it is to criticise and punish misbehaviour. Go out of your way to notice and praise any of your daughter’s good behaviour. Any time she helps out or does something positive, give her a personally encouraging message about this – “I appreciate it when you help tidy your room” or “thanks for putting away your clothes – it makes a big difference”.

As well as being much more effective, the big advantage of using praise to change children’s behaviour is that it feels good for both child and parent. It boosts the child’s self-esteem, rather than potentially damaging it and it improves the parent-child relationship rather than putting a strain on it. This is particularly helpful when you are parenting a sensitive child. I will send you my book Positive Parenting which has more ideas on these positive discipline techniques.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See