How to deal with four disrespectful daughters

March 21, 2011

Q. Our four daughters — ages 13, 10, 9 and 7 — are bright, articulate and energetic, but our family is full of strife.

We’ve raised our children with love, compassion and patience. We’ve listened to them, played with them, read with them and applauded their interests. We’ve encouraged their friendships and nurtured their sisterly relationships. We’ve taught them how to clean the bathroom, make a sandwich, take out the garbage, make their beds and other life skills.

This worked for years, but now the oldest child is dealing with a difficult social scene in middle school and is moodier than ever, the 10-year-old is also moody, the 9-year-old has her moody moments, and the 7-year-old is a spitfire who frequently throws tantrums when she can’t get her way.

The children jump on one another about trivial things and are snippy with one another and with us. They roll their eyes, sigh, slam doors and stomp out of the room so often that I dread the afternoons and evenings when they’re at home.


(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

This behavior seems ironic to me. Although my husband and I have occasionally taken away privileges and used timeouts, we’ve mainly used positive discipline and incentives to guide our children. We also limit their screen time and provide healthy food. Though our marriage isn’t perfect, we settle our differences calmly. And yet our children yell, call one another names and belittle one another, too.

The oldest and the youngest are now in therapy, and all of them are quite unhappy, even though they are excellent students and well-behaved at school, at the homes of their friends and with our frequent visitors. I have noticed, however, that they interact with adults better than with children and that they have fewer friends this year and fewer social activities. How can we become a happy family?

A. Happiness is hard to find when one child is in a wretched middle school situation, when she and even her 10-year-old sister are being doused with hormones and when — or if — your girls are giving much less than they get, which makes many children angry and rebellious.

Your daughters will become better givers if you have them help you make dinner every night or have the four of them make dinner once a week, all by themselves. A 7-year-old can set a fine-looking table, a 9-year-old can heat precooked sausages and a jar of tomato sauce, a 10-year-old can make a salad and the dressing, and a 13-year-old can cook the pasta and pour it — and the boiling water — into a colander when it’s done.

Your daughters should also help others without pay. They’ll earn a psychic income — and be less cranky — if they walk the dog for the new widow down the street, run errands for the woman next door and bring in the papers for the neighbor who’s out of town.

Mostly, however, your children must start respecting you and their dad as much as you respect them.

To begin the process, set up a family meeting and tell the children that everyone must attend — no excuses allowed — and that no one can bring their cellphones, iPods or iPads or answer the door or the phone while it’s going on. Don’t let them know what the meeting is about, however, until they’re seated at the table.

That’s when you and your husband should tell your girls that you love them dearly but that you’re fed up with their snarky behavior and you bet that they are too. Ask them how the family should change, consider their ideas carefully and then lay down a few new but absolute rules: They can’t say anything mean to one another, they must apologize immediately if they roll their eyes, sigh, stomp out of the room or have a tantrum — and they’ll have to follow these rules forevermore.

Your girls will still do some eye-rolling and foot-stomping, but they’ll do it less if you intervene immediately and if you make them apologize for their mistakes, without letting them blame their behavior on the sister who provoked it. Once they can admit that they reacted the wrong way, they’ll find a better response.

Your daughters may think these rules are extreme, but if they learn to get along with friends and family now, they’ll get along better with their bosses, their roommates, their partners and their spouses later.

However, if they can’t learn this life skill — the most important one of all — you probably need family therapy for the six of you rather than individual counseling for two of you. The family is a team, but sometimes it takes an outsider to teach us the rules of the game.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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ONLINE DISCUSSION Marguerite Kelly will be online Thursday at noon.

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