Current Issue of BDINews
I have trouble explaining to my in-laws why I am so drained and stressed by our four-year old daughter....
Temperament and Parenting
A Newsletter About Caring for the High Maintenance Child by Kate Andersen, M.Ed.
Issue Theme: Improving Goodness of Fit
Volume 23, Number 3, October, 2020.
Letter to Kate
I've read your newsletter and a couple of books about temperament in children. Still, I have trouble explaining to my in-laws why I am so drained and stressed by our four-year old daughter. They understand what I mean when I talk about temperament, I think. They just don't understand what can be so 'difficult' about our daughter's temperament. I have to admit that Melissa is not nearly as 'challenging' when she is visiting Grandma and Grandma. I think my in-laws think that I am picky or maybe even exaggerating.
Here's an example. At home Lissy makes a scene about practically everything, starting with getting dressed in the morning. She hates the feel of socks and runs around trying to avoid putting them on. Yes, I let her go sockless unless it's freezing outside. Then she gets upset if her older sister sits on 'her' chair at breakfast time or if the cereal box is on the 'wrong' side of the table. Following that, we often have a tantrum when it's time to stop playing and get in the car to go to day care. After day care, Lissy is often very tired and will have a tantrum at the slightest frustration. Some of this is 'overflow' from the stress of day care, where she doesn't have the greatest relationship with the teacher (and this is the opinion of her psychologist). I never take her to the store after day care. Instead, we go home and I make sure she has a snack that she likes right away. Even so, if her sister does anything at all that rubs her the wrong way, we get a meltdown. I do as much prevention as I can but some days I cannot manage Lissy as well as I would like to. I am very busy, with a full-time job, two children, and a big house to clean and yard to take care of.
Now, for her visits to the grandparents. First of all, I am not interested in dealing with a meltdown over there, so we time the visits carefully and even cancel if Lissy is having a bad day. Usually, we go around the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday when all the tensions of day care have disappeared. Lissy loves going because Grandma always has her favorite cookies waiting for her. Grandpa takes her on his knee and reads her a story. Lissy cooperates with him when he says it's time to go downstairs and play quietly with her sister. He used to take her for walks but stopped doing that when he learned about her issue with socks. I always leave promptly before things get out of hand. The reason I am so careful not to let Lissy lose it with her grandparents is that I have never forgotten the day my mother-in-law criticized my parenting when our oldest daughter, at age two, had a very typical tantrum. I feel that nothing I do is good enough for my in-laws--especially when it comes to parenting.
You see, even though I don't say much, my husband talks about me and the stress I am having with Lissy to his parents. They bring it up when we visit and say they don't see what the problem is. My husband never says anything about the struggles he has with Melissa and he has plenty.
What advice do you have for me? I am feeling very alone in this family with my own, non-judgmental parents living thousands of miles across the country.
By the way, a temperament assessment found Lissy to have a very low sensory threshold, to be low in adaptability, withdrawing, negative in mood and somewhat irregular in biological rhythms. She has a good attention span and no other temperament issues. She has a high I.Q. and is very healthy.
Feeling Judged and Blamed
Kate's Answer Dear Judged and Blamed,
Let's take a very practical approach to the issues you raise. You are obviously well-informed and have gone to the trouble to take your daughter to a professional person to figure out what is going on. I am going to assume that the assessment is accurate and that your daughter has the five temperament traits that research has found challenge middle-class, Western parents. As you know, it is not the temperament itself but the 'fit' between the temperament and the expectations of the environment that creates the stress.
I don't know enough about you, Melissa and your family to give you a lot of specific advice. However, here's a hunch you might consider. I think that the problems of fit in the home environment and Lissy's temperament may be coming from the demands of contemporary family life--at least, from your approach to those demands. You mentioned that you work full-time, run a household and take care of a yard. The areas in which you struggle with Melissa seem to be related to the busyness of your life. While you understand in theory the importance of being patient, preparing Melissa for changes, and keeping things as consistent as possible, it seems that this is not as easy for you to achieve on weekdays as it is on weekends. Your competence in preventing problems with Melissa is very clear on the days that you visit the grandparents. It seems that you fear their criticism more than you worry about the chronic daily stress in the interactions between you and Melissa during the week. Can you think a bit about why that might be the case?
It seems that your husband increases your stress by effectively invalidating your difficulties and setting you up for criticism from his parents. Could there be a marital dynamic here that needs exploring?
I'd sure like to see you try to turn things around in your family by switching your priorities for a week or two and seeing what happens. First of all, consider whether your husband feels more a part of his family of origin than a loyal spouse. Make some dates to spend time with him without the children and don't complain about his parents. Do tell him how hurt you feel when he talks about you to his parents. Ask him if you can be the one to discuss your relationship with Melissa. Then take responsibility for getting the picture across to them as honestly as you can. Don't worry about their reaction at this point. Worry about your own part in being clear about this.
As well, is it possible you manage too much at home and don't leave him with an area of competence? You're doing too much work! That in itself is bound to wear down your patience with both him and the children. He needs to either do the housework or the yard work (or to pay someone to do either or both). Get some balance there, please.
Then, I'd like to see you treat the weekdays like Sunday and exercise as many of the prevention principles that you use on Sundays as you can. Then, stop going to your in-laws on Sundays and see if you can drop by during the week after day care. Don't set Melissa up to fail but do let your in-laws REALLY get to know their granddaughter. They cannot give her the unconditional love she deserves if they don't really know her!
The person who is really judging and blaming you is yourself. By presenting a false picture to your in-laws, you put them in an unfair position. Be kinder to yourself and let the reality of your life show itself in full force. While your husband and in-laws may not like what they see at first, reality does have a wonderful way of teaching people what is going on and what needs to be done. You never know, they may even offer to help. I am hoping that you will not be too proud to accept that help.
I asked Dr. Sean McDevitt, Editorial Consultant, to comment: "The 'goodness of fit' here is almost certainly impacted in part by the demands that Mom needs to make on Melissa to function at home, day care and school. This would include having to get her up and dressed and off to her daily routine. Certainly there are standards and time limits that are part of the expectations. Visiting in a nurturing environment where Melissa is the center of attention can't be compared to ongoing management 'grind' of raising a high maintenance child. This contrast is often seen with divorced parents, where visits to the nonresidential parent are set up with special expectations and offerings that aren't realistic part of daily functioning. The residential parent often feels unfavorably compared, when the real difference is the aim of the time spent! Nonresidential parents have to pack a lot of quality time into a few days a month; hence, the so-called Disneyland parent. Grandparenting can sometimes be a similar situation."
If, over time, letting Melissa be herself at your in-laws makes things worse and you find yourself the recipient of real and damaging criticism, it may well be time for some family therapy and/or marital counseling. One final comment: read the article on parent-blaming below and take heart.
Best wishes and good luck!
to some common questions about behavioral style.
Origins, impact on parenting, risk for behavioral issues, relationship to ADHD, and other topics.
Goodness of Fit
How temperament is assessed.
Poor fit can lead to stress and possibly emotional or behavioral problems
When professional help is needed
There are qualified individuals from several disciplines who counsel parents and children.