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My Four-Year-Old Is Ruining My Life

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: I am being controlled by my 4-year-old daughter. In the past year my sweet, loving child has begun to hold the strings in the family. When my marital problems began she started sleeping in my bed because her father moved into her room. Since the divorce, I can't get her out! She won't go to sleep until I go to bed, she gets up when I do. She is so insecure that she wakes up to make sure that I am still in bed. I know the fear of losing another parent scares her. She refuses to do things by herself and screams until I give in. She doesn't understand "No". Everything I try with her fails because of her defiance. She is a very bright child and very capable. She does well in preschool and I give her plenty of quality time, but I can't give her every minute of my day. She has a nine-year-old brother and I teach all day. Out in public we are fine; when we visit friends we are fine. The moment we come home, that all changes. My class is difficult, my ex is uncooperative, and my daughter is ruining my life. I am in counseling but that doesn't seem to help with the parenting. Do my children need counseling from the divorce? My counselor doesn't think so. My daughter is difficult -- how do I get control of her before I end up deciding she's better off with her father?

A: First, let me tell you that I see things in terms of family dynamics, so although some therapists would suggest that your life is indeed being ruined by your defiant daughter, I would maintain that your entire family just went through an enormous painful upheaval and that everyone's responses -- yours, your daughter's and your son's (ex-husband's too) -- are being affected by this upheaval. So I see a family in crisis, not just a 4-year-old who wants to live inside her mother's blouse.

I believe your daughter is still very frightened, as you surmise yourself. Don't assume your 9-year-old is coping just fine either just because he isn't outwardly manifesting behavior on the scale of your daughter. He may very well be angry that all the attention is coming her way while he fears and seethes inside himself.

I do not discount your need for counseling and support from a professional but I would disagree with your current therapist that your kids don't need or would not benefit from a good family/child therapist. This is about a family healing, not just the grownups. Your daughter will continue to act in a fear-based manner to secure your attention; she does not have the sophistication to connect with you in other ways at this time. As her fears are dealt with, other behaviors more comfortable to her and you can manifest themselves. Don't make this your four-year-old's problem and blame her for your life being messed up now. She didn't have anything to do with your marital problems and ugly divorce. You are a FAMILY in need of some talented professional help and it looks like you're the one who has to seek it out. I know this is not an easy time, and it will continue to be problematical for some time. But the good news is if you frame the problem in the correct manner (FAMILY NEEDS) then true healing for all can take place. Good luck.

More on: Expert Advice

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


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