Dear Dr. Yael

Baruch Hashem, I have a beautiful family and have a lot to be grateful for. However, along with brachos come challenges. For example, our nine-year-old daughter is an overachiever. She is pretty and smart, rarely getting a mark below 100 on her tests.

Dr. Respler, we do not set standards of perfection for our children. All we ask is that they do their best. However, she seems to need to prove she is the best. She basks in praise, and that is something we do give very enthusiastically. In addition to verbal praise, I sometimes give little prizes and, whenever one of our children is very good, we make it a point to call the grandparents in front of that child and let them know as well.

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This child will frequently come over and ask, “Who is behaving the best?” and “Who ate lunch the best?” She seems to always need to hear that she is absolutely the greatest. I always praise her when she asks such questions – in a way that tones down the competition. For example, I would say, “You behaved very nicely for the past hour and before that Rivka behaved nicely,” or “Rivka ate her sandwich the best and you ate your salad the best.” I am not quite sure why she needs this constant reassurance that she is better than the rest.

In addition, she is not flexible and feels that she must always have her way. If she does not get what she wants, there is a terrible backlash. She calls her siblings “mean” and often makes them cry. If I tell her something she does not like, she glares at me insolently and angrily. She shrieks if she feels that we are not taking her side, and she never wants to acknowledge when she is wrong. She is not bossy in school, but at home, she does try to assert her will over her siblings; if they don’t play exactly what or how she wants to play, she just won’t play, and she will loudly insult all those who won’t listen to her. She is also very sensitive, but not necessarily to others. She needs absolute love and acceptance. She has some friends in school, but I don’t feel that their relationships are meaningful or deep. She wants them to be, but I think that her strong, and many times her inflexible nature won’t allow that to happen.

On the other hand, she can be so caring, loving and pleasant when she chooses to be. During those times, I praise her and let her know how much nachas she gives me. She sometimes shares with her siblings (she had to learn how and I’m glad that my hard work in that area has paid off).

She is sometimes encouraging towards them, but more and more often, she behaves in a way that is hurtful. My other children complain about her all the time. When they complain to her about how she acts, it just makes things worse. She gets angry easily and often feels that people just want to bother her.

I have tried talking to her, tried giving her little gifts, promising rewards, promising punishments, and offering to take her to a “special person or doctor” who can help her. I daven to Hashem for help. Dr. Respler, I don’t know what to do anymore. Lately, I have seen one of my younger daughters acting just like her.

I am hoping that you will have some suggestions for me.

Thank you,

A Desperate Mother

Dear Mother,

Here are my thoughts on what is clearly a challenging situation.

A therapist or counselor is most definitely needed to help your daughter build up her self-esteem and work with her on being more flexible and on how to control her anger.

However, there are many things you can do at home to improve the situation. Firstly, you say that you answer her questions as to who is the best by saying that she and another child are special in different ways. While this is a good response, it would be healthier if you would take the emphasis off the “best” by saying something like, “Nobody needs to be the best because there is no best; you are all special in your own ways.” With this wording you are telling her that every person, including all of her siblings, is exceptional in his or her own way. Hopefully, after hearing this time and time again, she will eventually realize that there is no competition.

Second, avoid comparison praise at all costs; it sends a message that there is some sort of competition. In addition, the child may feel happy about the praise, but sad that her sister (or friend) is being criticized.

Third, you mentioned that your daughter says nasty things to her siblings and that she will glare insolently at you when you tell her something she does not like. When this happens, you need to assert your role as a parent. When she is nasty to her siblings, take her aside and in a firm, but not critical, tone tell her to go to her room and wait for you there. You can then tell your other children to continue playing and that you will return shortly. Then, say something like, “I know that you are upset that you couldn’t play the game you wanted, but saying these hurtful things to your siblings is unacceptable.”

When she is calm, ask her why she thinks she says such upsetting things and how you can work with her on not saying them. Maybe you can think of a special word, one only you and her know, that you can say when she is starting to become inflexible and angry. You can decide that when you say this word, she will try to be more flexible and not be difficult. It’s possible to even make this into a game in which she transfers her anger into humor. Like this, she will feel special that she is getting individual attention, but she will also realize that behaving this way is unacceptable.

Discuss with her ways in which you can facilitate better behavior. A star chart may be successful – she can get a star whenever she gives in to someone else or is flexible in some manner. She can also have the prerogative of telling you if she was compliant when you were not around. This might help her feel assertive and give her some confidence, while at the same time motivate her to be more flexible.

Fourth, promising punishments is not enough. I know that it is difficult for parents to carry out punishments, but fair consequences are sometimes necessary in order for you to show that you mean business. It may be a good idea for you to tell your daughter, while you are setting up the star chart, that when she compromises with or gives in to her siblings (or friends), she will get a star, but if she is stubborn and insensitive to her siblings’ (or friends’) needs then you will take one away. You can then ask her what she wants when the star chart is full (it does not have to be something extravagant). Make the amount of stars attainable, so she will feel rewarded and not get frustrated. The most appropriate gift would be an outing or special time with you or her father, or the two of you together. Even a special trip to the pizza shop with one of her parents alone can be more memorable and rewarding than any material present.

Lastly, every child needs absolute love and acceptance and to feel like he or she is special. These are not bad things to want, but your daughter needs to learn that there are other people in this world that need to feel treasured as well. Even though you are very upset with your child’s behavior, you must show her unconditional love and spend extra time with her. She seems to need more attention and love and this may help her realize that you love her even if she is not the well behaved – and that she need not be the best. Try and focus on her strengths and use meaningful praise especially when she demonstrates flexibility. Finally, do not stop davening for her. Hatzlocha!

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