Q: My 7-year-old daughter has constant behavioral problems whenever we get into the car. She calls her 10-year-old brother names, pinches, hits or spits on him. This behavior also happens in our home when she's mad about something that is often completely unrelated to her brother. In these cases, I give her a timeout. But when we're going somewhere, we often have a deadline, and I can't take the time to send her up to her room. This behavior seems to be getting worse. I've tried talking positively to her about how she isn't a mean girl, and these are mean things she's doing. I've offered incentives if she can abstain from this behavior for a full week. I've also applied consequences, such as not being able to take along a toy she brought for the trip. When I apply consequences, including getting out of the car to take a timeout, she becomes increasingly angry, calls me names, and replies with, "I don't have to listen to you." Then, after five to 10 minutes, she calms down and apologizes. This often only lasts a few minutes, after which she begins the same behavior all over again. It appears as though it's something she can't control.
Here's some background information. I'm a professional single mother of "mature years" who works full time outside the home. Both my children were adopted internationally when they were infants. My son is bright and on target both developmentally and academically. My daughter is beautiful and quite athletic. She's of average or above-average intelligence and enjoys school. However, she's had a number of developmental delays, including speech, math, and reading/writing skills. She also has been diagnosed by a pediatric specialist with attention deficit disorder and is taking two medications for it. She's been getting special services through the school system since age 3 and also gets speech therapy from a private speech therapist.
I'm at a loss in helping my daughter change this behavior. As you might imagine, it puts quite a crimp in our family life. Are there other tools or strategies I should be using? Is it time to seek professional counseling?
A: You may indeed need some professional help determining the cause of your daughter's outbursts, but I'll suggest some things to try first. Your daughter may have special anxieties related to going in the car that she's not shared with you. You could ask her. Playing kids' musical tapes or a video for each trip could help her stay calm. You may also want to observe carefully that your son isn't doing some aggravating tricks to set her off. If she says he started it, it's possible she's right. It's also possible that her speech problem causes her enough frustration, so she uses action before words to solve her problems, and your calm reminders before car trips to solve problems by talking to her brother could be helpful. The best trick may be to use a small but meaningful and cooperative reward system that both children earn together only when they're both nice to each other. Rather than count up the days and expect every day to be good, you could place a sticker on the calendar for each good day, and they could do or have something special after they earn five stickers, and it wouldn't have to necessarily be five days in a row.
Your daughter may be experiencing extreme sibling rivalry, considering she's having so many more problems than her brother. You've already done many things right, so if these tips aren't enough, get additional help from a psychologist.
For free newsletters about discipline for little, middle, and big kids, or about sibling rivalry, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the address below. Dr. Sylvia B. Rimm is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the author of many books on parenting. More information on raising kids is available at www.sylviarimm.com. Please send questions to: Sylvia B. Rimm on Raising Kids, P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI 53094 or [email protected] To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.