Q. Our 10-year-old daughter gets angry when she doesn’t get her way or what she wants. She doesn’t want to share with others. She resists doing chores and homework. She is jealous when her 6-year-old sister gets attention. Why does she behave this way? What can we do to help her?
A. I suspect that when your older daughter was an only child for four years, your world revolved around her. She was so special. Then along came Sister, and she was expected to share your time and attention—but she probably didn’t like it. I suspect she started developing some behaviors associated with selfishness.
Richard Fitzgibbons, in his article “Selfishness in Children” (bit.ly/1St3Duc), makes some interesting and important points:
- Selfishness is one of the major causes of excessive anger and defiant behaviors in children and teenagers.
- A selfish child creates a lot of stress in others, including parents, siblings, peers and teachers.
- Selfish children can be misdiagnosed as having ADHD, due to the hyperactivity they display when they fail to get their way or the attention they demand.
- People of any age that tend to be selfish can and do display anger when they don’t get their way or what they want.
Fitzgibbons is not alone in identifying selfishness as a major cause of anger in children. It’s an oft-repeated theme by professionals working with families.
So, how can you help your daughter be less angry, jealous and defiant, and more loving, gentle and considerate? Here are some suggestions:
- Use consequences for undesired behavior. For example: If homework is not done and turned in, no electronics, including the phone, for a given period of time. If clothes or belongings are left on the floor, hold them for ransom or put them in a box marked “Donations,” and see how fast they get put away.
- Put expectations in writing. Start a communication notebook (an inexpensive spiral notebook will do) so you can tell your child once about your expectations, rather than telling her over and over.
- Establish chores. Doing chores should be expected of each family member. Write down age appropriate chores, and get your child to sign off on them. Extra chores deserve pay, but not the “part of the family daily or weekly chores.”
- Model and expect good behavior—manners, kindness and respect—and don’t reward her with “good job” or a treat. If rewarded, a child may work for rewards and not out of empathy or kindness. Volunteer with your child to serve less fortunate people. Being kind and respectful are important parts of being unselfish.
- Model and teach your child how to “lift others up,” encouraging and helping others to succeed rather than complaining about people in their lives and hoping they will fail.
- Help your child understand the difference between needs and wants.
In order to help your daughter change for the better, you and your husband need to agree to work together as parents, and you may need to make some changes in your own behavior.
While parents are often generous with their children, they can model selfish behavior with a spouse, relatives and friends. If you look closely, you might see your own selfish behavior mirrored back in your child’s behavior.
Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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