Frustrated Father

I have a 12 year-old (near 13) daughter who is extremely immature and acts like she’s 7-8. She never cleans up after herself, forgets anything we say to her, always forgets what she’s supposed to do, and never listens to any of us. She also leaves everything she uses around, can’t take care of anything that she owns or has borrowed from someone else, and picks on her brother constantly, even after fines were placed on her. I am at my wits’ end with this girl. Every second of the day I am keeping after her. She is so incompetent that she can’t complete a job without our help. She puts such a strain on all of us. HELP!!! – frustrated father

I can certainly feel your frustration, and I’m sure any parent who has gone through this remembers how it feels to deal with a child who has tuned you out and seems not to care at all about other family members. This pattern is common between parents and teen or pre-teen children.

The child is at a stage of development in which she really needs more independence and needs to be in charge of her own life. Independence goes with responsibility, and both she and her parents want her to become more responsible. But the way in which her parents attempt to get her to be more responsible is by telling her what to do and reminding her when she doesn’t do it. Unfortunately, this makes her feel she is even less in charge of her own life.

The only way the child can feel any control over her life is to resist her parents’ directions. The more they tell her what to do, the more she resists doing what she is told, either actively by yelling and fighting, or passively by just not doing whatever they want her to do. The parents’ frustration leads them to escalate the situation by constantly nagging, criticizing, and punishing. But this only undermines the parent-child relationship, and the child learns to tune the parents out completely in order to feel that her life is her own. At the same time her self-esteem goes down, because she is constantly getting messages from her parents that she is irresponsible and selfish. Anger and resentment build up on both sides, communication doesn’t happen, and the child is now at risk for resisting her parents in more active ways, by acting out in the community, as she enters her teens.

How do you get out of the cycle? The first thing to do is recognize that your relationship with your daughter really needs repairing. You need to build up your “emotional bank account” with your daughter, because at this point there is very little trust, security, or love there. The negative interactions need to be stopped, and you need some positive times together so that your daughter can recognize that you really do care about her, even if you’re frustrated with her behavior.

You also need to understand that your daughter’s resistance to your directions actually comes from a positive source – her need to become independent and in charge of her own life. Give her the opportunity to take more responsibility for her own life by backing off from telling her what to do. Think of all the behavior problems your daughter is showing, and decide whose problem each is, hers or yours. If something is her problem, stay out of it. Her homework, her room, her possessions, taking her lunch to school, borrowing from friends, and having clean clothes are all her own problems. Let her feel the natural consequences of her irresponsible behavior by not replacing things she loses or wrecks. Don’t even mention these things, and don’t tell her to shape up. Let her figure it out for herself. You may announce to her at the start that you realize you’ve been over-involved in things that are her business, and you are planning to back off.

On the other hand, things left around the house or things she borrows from you are your problems. You can confiscate things she leaves around for a time, and refuse to lend things as a consequence of her not returning them. Do this without nagging, using simple consequences related to the problem behaviors. Don’t fine her – she needs to learn how to handle money responsibly, and she won’t learn it if she doesn’t have any money.

Picking on her brother is not your problem, but is between your daughter and her brother, if he’s more than five years old. Don’t step in to take sides. Younger kids can be very good at making older kids so angry that they lash out, and then parents step in and side with the younger kid, making the older one feel bad. Tell the children that their rooms are their own territories, and if one of them is feeling upset with the other they can retreat to their own room. They need to learn to work it out. You can if necessary give them individual coaching on how to deal with the other child, but don’t get involved as the judge of who is right or wrong.

Chores are something that need to be negotiated between parent and child, and the child needs some say in what chores she does. Discuss which chores she prefers, and give her some choices. Include things like cooking which she may like. Then agree with her on a time by which her chores need to be done, and on a privilege which will be removed if the chores are not done by that time. Don’t just lay down the law, let her have some say. If she doesn’t know how to do a particular task, teach her once. Then leave her alone without nagging until the deadline passes, and just remove the agreed-upon privilege if the chore isn’t done.

To sum up : Recognize your daughter’s need for independence, stop nagging, back off from any problems that are hers to solve, negotiate chores and deadlines, and build up some positive feelings between you by spending positive time together. Her self-esteem, her feeling capable of handling her own life, and her feeling her parents have confidence in her are essentials to help her move successfully through adolescence.

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