We are tip-toeing around our daughter’s bad moods in the morning
If we bring this to her attention, she turns it back on her siblings
She blames them for starting rows even though a lot of the time she initiates things herself
QUESTION: I have three sons (11, 13 and 16) and a daughter (14). My daughter attended a mixed primary school and then went to the local all-girls secondary school. She found the all-girls environment very difficult to adjust to as there was a lot of bitchiness and she wouldn’t be like that herself. She has a lot of empathy for others and can’t understand why girls pick on each other and single out individuals and exclude them, etc. She had a very difficult time in first year as she was bullied and ended up going to counselling.
She is in second year now and is as stronger person as a result of her experiences, but she still dislikes going to school, though attends every day.
She has a super-sensitive personality (she excels at art, music, English, Irish and history) and she is also a bit of a perfectionist.
My query is this: I feel that she dictates the atmosphere in the home . . . if she is in a bad mood, we are all tip-toeing around her (which is most mornings!). If we bring this to her attention, she turns it back on her siblings. She blames them for starting rows even though a lot of the time she initiates things herself. I’ve read your articles on sibling rivalry and not taking sides in disputes – these were helpful. But what is the best way to deal with her bad moods which are affecting everyone?
Answer: Your question highlights how stress can affect not only an individual, but also the whole family. When a child is stressed or unhappy in school they might be able to just about cope in the classroom, but they will take this stress home in the form of moods and bad behaviour. The stress causes them to have a shorter fuse, which can easily blow over minor arguments and parents and siblings can easily be on the receiving end.
Stress can happen for both parents and children. Lots of parents stressed in work, come home in bad moods and are less likely to be attentive to partners and children and more likely to engage in rows. Stress has the potential to erode family relationships and “tip-toeing” around the stressed person leads to resentment. In your daughter’s case the stress seems to affect her most in the morning when she is anxious in anticipation of a day at school.
In helping your daughter, the first step is to be understanding of her stress and moods. Given her experience of being bullied and her sensitive personality it is understandable that school might be stressful for her. As well as confronting her on her behaviour, it is important to be compassionate towards her and the reasons for her stress. Encouraging her to talk about her worries and feelings is important. Practically, this might mean that if you notice that she is getting wound up in the morning, you might pull her aside (ideally before she has a blow out) and give her some space to talk, “‘you seem a little tense, is there something on your mind?”). Indeed, it might be best to have this conversation the night before when you have more time to help her anticipate and plan how to deal with her stresses in school
Explore other ways she can manage her stress
Explore with your daughter’s other ways she can manage her stress in in the morning, other than taking it out on family members. Usually, it is best to have this conversation at a relaxed time when you have some space (such as going for a walk somewhere). Start by acknowledging her feelings (“I know you get stressed in the morning going to school”) and focus on a positive goal (“How can we avoid the rows in the morning?”). There are lots of different things that might help such as helping her have a plan to address the problems in school and helping her learn to talk about her feelings – “listen just say if you are feeling stressed . . . we will try and listen”. She can also learn to pause and take a break as she notices her stress rising. The ideal is to help her talk about her stress rather than take it out on the family.
Avoid ‘tip-toeing around’ her bad mood
If you and the family get into the habit of “walking on eggshells” or “tip-toeing around” her bad moods, this will lead to resentment and often increased rows (as everyone finally gets fed up with her). Try to think through how you can respond to a bad mood in a way that does not affect you negatively. This might mean giving her some space to talk in the morning, but still getting on with the morning routine for everyone else. It might mean keeping things light and having a family code word – “oh N is is in the horrors this morning, she needs a bit of space” or simply learning not to get hooked into her mood. You can also use consequences to help her learn – “listen, each time you take out your mood on others, you are going to lose 10 minutes of your screen time”. The key to making consequences work is to be calm, give her and warning and to use a small repeatable sanction that you don’t run out of.
Help her siblings understand her stress
It is important to help her brothers compassionately understand their sister’s stress and to empower them to find their ways of managing. If they complain about her moods, you might first acknowledge (“you sister is stressed going to school, but she shouldn’t shout at you like that”) and then ask them what they can do to deal with her when she is like that. Support them in coming up with good solutions such as telling her to stop, pulling back and getting on with their own routine, talking through things later, etc.
– Dr John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He has published 14 books including ‘Parenting Teenagers: A Guide to Solving Problems, Building Relationships and Creating Harmony in the Family’. See solutiontalk.ie.