Question: How should we handle our daughter’s “dramatics”?

A friend and reader writes me an email in late June, 2010:
[My 8 year old daughter L. has been having] periodic breakdowns (when overly tired) that are just SAD AND INTENSE. Everything comes up -including things that we talked about the last time. Specifically, the dogs dying, if I might go to the hospital with allergies and die there, why the older kids are so mean, that I like [her younger sister] R. more b/c she is littler, that [her father] C. laughs at her when she is angry, and more.  Some of these big feelings are traceable to events , some start to feel like dramatics.

We handle it the same each time.  I lay down with her in bed and she cries and talks.  She is so wrecked that her breathing is all ragged. Once she is wound down we read a story and she goes to sleep.  This morning I am thinking about it and it occurs to me that I do not make a lot of one on one with her.  I will increase that so that she gets all of my attention when she is not all upset. 

I want to be clear that I do not think L. is being dramatic or making anything up.  I just am amazed by the depth of her feelings.  I wonder if she is running this stuff through her mind all the time… I wonder how I can better support discussions about death (not my best topic) when she is not all wound up.  I wonder if I should take my kids to church so they have a spiritual foundation.  I wonder how she will manage these huge feelings when she is older and bigger things are happening?

Mostly, I wonder if you have any thoughts from your own experience to share.


I thought quite a bit about what you wrote to me about L. I think the situation has some complexity and there are a few factors involved. First I want to speak about parenting girls (especially firstborn daughters), secondly some of my observations and thoughts around L. and your family specifically, and finally some of my similar issues with my daughter. I hope you can take a few minutes to read, respond, re-read and digest. And I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I have come to believe our culture is horrid at raising girls in a healthy way. I would go so far as to say once you step outside the door it’s an anti-girl zone. Even our societal shortcomings might be navigable (and as it turns out our social landscape would improve) if more parents were aware of just how girl-toxic it is out there and sought to supplant these harmful effects by giving their daughter their compassion, shelter, and support of her inner resources. Yet it is a rare mother, father, or carer who are fully nurturing and protective enough to best raise a strong daughter. Success is bestowed when we raise a daughter who functions well (and is convenient to others), but this is not the same thing. The academic- or career-achieving “good girl” etc. is created often at the expense of her integrity, happiness, internal awareness, and autonomy.

I don’t want to raise a well-functioning daughter anymore (although this is what I started with when I first had my child). I want to raise a strong and happy daughter. The funny thing is such a child likely will appear well-functioning to others. But if “well-functioning” is my only or primary goal there is every chance I will limit her severely.

It sounds noble and it sounds like every parent/carer’s goal to raise a “strong girl” but it is very difficult in practice because we are working against our culture and (usually) our own upbringings. We have a tendency to highly-socialize girls, expect more from them (in terms of manner, performance, and pleasing others), and boy do we not like their “displays” of unacceptable behaviors, including “throwing fits” or having “drama” (or bullying or rudeness etc etc.). We are so much more forgiving and have a sense of humor about this stuff regarding boys.

This brings me to your family in particular and L.’s wind-ups or wind-downs or what have you. First, a couple observations. Since L. was a very young infant/toddler, I have noticed when she has emotional displays you frequently tell her she is over-tired or over-hungry. Even in this email you cite her over-tiredness and seek to on one hand call her behavior “dramatics” but on the other hand seek to distance her behavior from “drama” (it seems clear you think “drama” is a bad thing).

I don’t know how L. experiences this but I can tell you as a young girl I experienced this kind of minimization (usually from my mother) as extremely condescending and infuriating. There were many variations of this diminishment growing up. I was told I was “too young” to understand (when I wasn’t), or “too tired” or “too hungry” or “going to start my period” (this was especially annoying as I was told this for FOUR YEARS before I ever did start my period). As an adult I think about the “fits” and the displays I had and honestly, they were usually for a good reason! Yet I was belittled so much. Now, I have empathy for my parents and I believe they were ill-equipped to handle emotional displays (my mother believes this as well and admits this now) and so they (esp. my mother) sought to “cure” me of my undesirable behaviors. Unfortunately the sum message – especially when compounded with cultural messages of “niceness” and virtue and unselfishness – was that I was an asshole and my “drama” was not appreciated nor would it be listened to, much. Hence I learned to sacrifice authenticity or else be shamed, I learned to subvert my feelings, to sneak around and hide, and to foster resentment which turned venomous over time.

I don’t mean to make it sound like my childhood was horrid because in many ways my home was a nurturing and loving one. Just that as an adult female of 33 I am still prone to second-guessing myself and it has not helped me in any way. Being tired or hungry is still an issue that crops up in my adult life, but it hardly makes my emotions and thoughts invalid. In fact sometimes being over-tired or over-hungry or what-have-you reveals deep-seated issues I”ve been repressing, and can serve as a divining rod to things I need to address or bring awareness to (And hello, I tend to think women’s so-called PMS can actually have the result of peeling back the veil and being a woman’s pretty goddamned valid expression of self). I know neither you or I want our daughter’s to feel so restricted and/or candy-ass or be a “play nice” adult (who is devious and resentful, or viscous behind her friends’/coworkers back). But if that’s true we have to do some hard work in the here and now.

(In contrast to the treatment I received as a young/preteen/teen girl, I recently wrote a bit about some different ways I’ve responded to my own daughter here: [ link ]).

L. may be experiencing the following as minimizing and frustrating: Her father’s laughter at her anger, the suggestions she is “tired” or “hungry”, or the admonitions that she won’t be listened to unless she can say or express it better or nicer or more articulately, etc. Even if she is not (yet) experiencing these as condescending or frustrating, I’m not sure these responses A. honor L. as a person with genuine feelings that are OK, no matter how strong or startling, or B. help her find out for herself when she is “tired” or “hungry” or what she needs.

Also, a rush to comfort a distraught child or a fear of their display sends the message: “You are out of control and I am unhappy with this,” (abandonment, heartbreak, conditional love may be experienced by the child) or “You are out of control and I don’t know what to do either!” (may be scary and/or alienating for the child) or “I do not trust you to handle yourself” (may undermine self-esteem and self-worth and/or foster resentment in the child). In other words any fear you feel at her displays are sending her the message something is Deeply Wrong with them. I encourage you to check every iota of baggage on this.

Another caveat: if you are NOT taking her emotions seriously – well, that’s almost worse. In other words if you view her displays as kind of “cute” or “childlike” or “drama” only and therefore laughable or beneath mention, this is a serious infraction (I have this tendency with my son Nels). This sends the message: “I will decide when something is important, and you have no say” or “You are less of a person than the adults in this house.” However I don’t think this is very You – it’s just worth mentioning as it runs in my family (especially my mom’s side).

Obviously this is all a tricky business and in similar scenarios I have responded quite poorly to my daughter’s displays (and more rarely, my son’s) – I’ll talk more about my struggles in a minute. However as the growunps we have the opportunity to regroup and come up with better strategies (as your email evidences you are doing).

Before I talk about my own experiences, a coda re: death in your household: the subject of death comes up when she is “all wound up” for a reason, not as a coincidence. She has, through her exposure to you and C.’s attitudes, developed a picture of death as frightening and overwhelming and perhaps a bit sentimental. By your own admission you have a hard time with death (as do many, if not most, people I know – except maybe my 512-year old dyed-in-the-wool Christian friends and neighbors) and I wonder if C. does too (he is a lot like you after all). As long as you both struggle, your children will pick this up too either some of the same fears and sentimentalization, or as a way to manipulate response (and I don’t mean the latter in a bad way). E.g. when L. is sad and overwhelmed she will refer to death because this is heavy emotional currency in your family. She is either just as fearful of death as you are and genuinely needs help, or she is “using” death as a way to communicate how Big A Deal her feelings are. When our kids tell us how Big A Deal their feelings are – by “drama” or hitting or strong words or the silent treatment – we are handed a supreme gift. They are still trying to communicate with us, and they are giving us their most vulnerable part. If we blow it, and continue to blow it, we risk hurting them or we risk them shutting down.

One more thought about death. Death is a subject that is not innately traumatic or horrid for children, but often they are made to experience it in that way. My children have been there for several deaths, sometimes graphic ones (we lost our first hen last night, BTW, FML). Most notable for us was my father’s death (right up close in the home) and our matriarchal cat Blackie’s death (lingering illness then euthanasia at the vet). I cope with death very well (I’ve had lots of practice I guess); my husband less so although he is improving. Our children have responded by being present and sorrowful but also strong and stable on the subject, and they have rarely evidenced nightmares or fears around it, even when “over-tired” or what-have-you. Now I can’t tell you or C. to just “get over it” and cope better. It is a highly personal issue. But to the extent that you struggle your children likely will as well. If your daughter brings up death when she is “all wound up” I would view this as a natural expression given your home and it’s unique challenges and emotional subjects. How to handle it, well first I’d have to hear some more details of your own feelings and I am open to the conversation and interested as well.

Now I want to talk about my own daughter a bit. I fall prey to poor parenting strategy regarding my daughter often. It is taking a lot of focussed work to improve. I wrote a bit about some recent stuff in the blog post I linked to above. I have many more thoughts on my daughter and her state of emotional health and I’ll share some.

I would say it is hard to know when Phoenix is doing well, because she gives the appearance of socially functioning well (as in, is “well-behaved” and doesn’t “act out”) even when she is unhappy. She is very subtle to me and thus I’ve had to grow new antennae. This is still a work in progress. Up until a couple years ago she was well on her way – thanks to me, her father, and school-environs – to being a “good girl”. In other words she was performing well in school and I was still socializing her to be polite and mannered. She got praised by her school staff often and at parent-teacher conferences the teacher would talk about the TINIEST MINUTIAE EVER – further ways Phoenix (then Sophie) could “improve” or be better. Because you know, it’s not enough to have a good girl at the top of the class who is a genuinely nice person, when she could be just even more perfect and well-behaved. I began to see the potential problem for my daughter wasn’t that she’d be “bored” in public school (b/c of her academic accomplishments) but that she’d start to thrive on praise and external validation. I’ve been there done that and could write tomes on the negative effects of this experience (but I’ll spare you for now).

Concomitant to unschooling at home I began to tolerate her “fuss downs” (her phrase) with less sharpness and irritation (for the child, our intolerance can be experienced as minimization, humiliation, and conditional love). I have noticed that in working against an intolerance for Phoenix’s emotional displays and focussing on being present for her these displays have decreased. She genuinely seems more happy and centered than she ever has before. Her name change was quite a good sign to me and the calm way she has owned her new name with steadfast determination is not something I would have predicted a couple years ago. She is gradually shedding her Good Girl upbringing and I hope to continue to assist her in doing so. Along with her happiness she seems more resilient to standing up to me and telling me “no” (which I’m aware can’t be easy). My job is to realize her “no” is her right and allow her that “no”. Of course, paradoxically, this makes her all the more willing to respond “yes” when it is something that will help me. She is also more honest about her mistakes, more proactive in apologizing, and more willing and able to make amends. Rather than these being rote duties she performs due to training, they are genuinely stemming from a place of gladness and a sense of responsibility and integrity – her own (not mine). A core of resentment she’d held towards me (from my more controlling parenting) seems to be dissolving and is now hardly evident.

To prove I am not a saint or awesome mom I can illustrate some failures on my part. Unfortunately I still respond to her sharply at times because I am often overwhelmed by the difficulties I have. One problem is I am still sensitive to strangers giving me the glare (or my perception of it even if it isn’t there) if my kids are rowdy in public. Sometimes I will suddenly abandon my mellowness and snap at them, take out my anxieties on them. The other problem is Phoenix often feels overwhelmed by her brother (who she will play with all morning and love so dearly, but when they have a spat it’s like a cage fight) and I feel unsure of how to help them and upset by their fights. I sometimes feel plagued with guilt when Nels hits her – like it is my fault. This is a short-sighted response because of course Nels’ hitting is only his poor strategy at having his needs unmet. Still, I feel such judgment and terribleness when this happens I become in my way paralyzed. And finally, I am pretty responsive and present with my kids alone but less so when there is an event or activity or friend I want to be with. I tend to wish my kids could operate well-mannered while I socialize or (like yesterday) get my haircut even when apparently this isn’t always realistic. I have still not let it sink in I am a Mother Full Time and that most especially includes when the kids are physically with me, whatever other activities I wish I could engage in. Also, frankly, our culture is just SHIT when it comes to helping parents with young kids – especially mothers. How many times in a world organized for Adults Only do you see strangers get that fart-smelling look at the “bad” child (sometimes even a very young baby!). I haven’t yet reconciled myself to this reality (and maybe I shouldn’t) so it is a strain in my life.

I am still working hard to re-program and I continually make mistakes. I wish I’d had even the slightest clue about all this when I first had a baby. But I didn’t, and I’m doing my best now.

For L. it doesn’t sound like you are handling things poorly with her crying etc., but I do think no amount of nurture and love in those moments is going to be the solution. These are issues deeper and will take some time to sort. I suggest adopting a long-view on this. If L. doesn’t have a crying jag tomorrow and the next day it doesn’t mean the factors I cite (or others I’ve missed) aren’t at play. My daughter’s gradual change from tension and performance to relaxed authenticity was not overnight, and it is still progressing. Handling the “crisis points” (like crying jags or in Phoenix’s case, the silent treatment) well is good enough, but getting to the roots of it to diffuse the crisis in the first place is harder work and may take a while.

I agree with your thoughts that one-on-one time is a good thing but it need not necessarily be “quality” time like crafting or whatever. Even just driving to the grocery store together, in fact especially mundane errands that take you out of the house and away from R. or C. or whatever, will foster healing for L.. You can try something more special like going on a hike or beach walk with just her, no one else and no distractions. I am fortunate in that Hoquiam/Aberdeen is big enough that when we go somewhere I don’t run into four hundred people to gab with, so I can be primarily with my child. So keep this in mind that an errand out with L. may be imperiled by the typical shoot-the-shit I know you and C. enjoy so much.

When Phoenix and I are alone together we often spend our time in companionable near-silence. It’s been wonderful and healing.

You can also think on what you think C. may or may not be adding to this. For instance Ralph is very nurturing and sweet to Phoenix and is often experienced as her respite and her supporter. He continually makes errors with Nels and I am all up in his business about this. He is improving with time. I know some people instruct one shouldn’t “manage” the relationship of a spouse with a child. But in my own life Ralph and I absolutely intervene when we think the other is fucking up. You are probably in a good place to weigh in on C. but maybe after you and L. are in a more stable place.

Additional reading material – I know I’ve recommended this book to you but I’m not sure if you’ve read it: The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence by Rachel Simmons. I would actually love more reading material on our girl-socialization because this book, though excellent, is limited to teen interactions with peers, and the only one I’ve read about contemporary girl-culture toxicity.

Please keep in mind I’ve thought deeply and responded based on what I know from my experience in my family and around yours. If I’ve said something that doesn’t ring true for you and your family by all means discard what I said or correct me.

Thank you for sharing with me and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Editor’s note: my friend – who wrote this in the capacity of friend-to-friend, not so much as a reader of my various writings on children, parenting, culture, and unschooling – was courteous enough to agree I could post this letter (blog/journal-related emails and queries are subject to my Policies on publishing, although anonymity may be requested). I am not interested in comments weighing in on my friend’s unique circumstances nor guesses as to how she and her partner might be failing their child. I specifically posted this so that parents – especially parents of young girls – might engage in discussion of their own observations on parenting girl children, their own difficulties therein, and any gentle and respectful commentary re: this particular scenario.

In short, my friend had the benefit that I know her and her family very, very well over the years since we’ve had children. You don’t (know them). If you wish to comment, proceed with caution.

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