Paying Off the Drama Queens (and Kings)
Do you have a child with a heightened sense of drama in her life? At every turn is there some new (daily) emotional challenge? Well, it never ceases to amaze me how many parents feel there is something wrong with their child, only to tell me a few weeks later that their child has far less drama in their life, after the parents started responding differently.
As with any repeating behavior, drama usually continues because it is getting paid off by the parents. A child is all upset about something (anything or even what seems like nothing). They come to the parent, and the parent takes the bait.
Note that the following is for repeating, dramatic behavior, and not a rare occurrence.
Arguing (for the child, but with the child). The child tells the parent something is horribly wrong. For example, a daughter says she is not pretty enough and none of the boys like her. The parent says, “Oh honey, I think you are beautiful. You’re as pretty as any of your friends.” Now the child argues back, “You are just saying that because you’re my mother. I am ugly and you know it, and I’m fat too.” So what just happened? The mother defended the daughter, but the daughter argued against herself. In fact, the discussion started with, “I’m not pretty.” And ended up with “I’m ugly and fat.” Who do you think the daughter will believe, her mother or herself? So, although the mom was trying to make her daughter feel better, the daughter walks away mumbling, “fat and ugly, fat and ugly.”
Logic – A child comes home from school complaining that his life is too busy and that he got a detention because he “couldn’t” finish his homework. Dad thinks quickly, and responds. “Son, you had time yesterday when you got home from soccer practice. You had at least 30 minutes before dinner, and you had another hour you spent on the phone after dinner before you started your homework. With a little time management, I am sure you can get everything done. ” The son rolls his eyes and gives some excuse, such as he kept getting interrupted, or he had to talk to a classmate before he could start the assignment.
Time and attention - The drama erupts! There is screaming of children. “Leave my stuff alone.” Or “Get out of my room, I hate you!” Doors slam. Maybe the child comes to you. Maybe you try to make things better and go to your daughter. You try to listen to her, comfort her, reason with her. Your daughter yells, cries, complains, and protests. It is a performance worthy of an Academy Award nomination. You are the good parent, so you keep trying to sooth and calm your child. You put your arm around your daughter. You try to console her. Maybe she says something “bad” enough to get you upset. Maybe you succeed in calming her down, maybe you don’t, but you end up spending 20 minutes in the process.
Yelling and screaming – There is fighting over the TV remote. There’s pushing, shoving, name calling, and hitting. You react and yell, “Kids stop that right now. Emily, leave your sister alone. If you hit her again, you’re grounded for a month. You kids are driving me crazy. I just can’t take any more of this. I don’t want to hear a peep out of either of you until your father comes home!” Mom storms off and tries to pull herself together.
Comforting the child – A 3 year old goes out to play with the other kids. Within 5 minutes, something happens to upset her. She comes in crying. Mom picks her up and tries to comfort her. She talks to her. She rocks her. 20 minutes later the daughter is calm, and goes out to play again. But guess what happens in a few minutes… something happens and she comes in crying again.
So what is happening in these cases? Well, the kids are getting attention for the dramatic behavior. There are 5 basic components to parent attention. These are
- Proximity (closeness to the child)
The greater any or all of these 5 items, the greater the payoff of parental attention. The more you pay off a behavior, the more it will re-occur again and again.
So what should a parent do? First, when a child comes to the parent with emotion, the parent responds with empathy and understanding.
Child: “I’m not pretty enough to get a date.”
Parent: “Sounds like you are worried you won’t get a date for Homecoming.”
Child: “My life is too busy to get everything done, and I got a detention in science because my homework wasn’t finished.”
Parent: “You seem stressed, and upset with the detention on top of everything else.”
Child: “I hate my sister, I wish she would leave my stuff alone and go away forever.”
Parent: “I can see you are really frustrated with your sister."
Child: (3 year old above, who comes in crying)
Parent: “Oh honey, you are terribly upset. (after a good hug…) Sit in this big soft chair and hold Happy Bear. I will be right back.”
Second, when there is a behavior problem, respond calmly with directives and expectations. If the children are fighting over the TV remote, the parent is best served to just ignore it. If you know it is going to escalate, then maybe you pleasantly yell out, “You guys, work it out.” If it goes beyond what can be ignored, then the parent responds, “Kids, no. No fighting. How do I expect you to treat each other?” (kids: “Nicely.”) “That’s right, and how do you watch TV nicely?” (kids: “Take turns and share the remote.”) “Great. I appreciate that.” (Then mom walks away, but returns in 3 minutes to tell the kids how she likes the way they are watching TV quietly.)
Give it a try. Calm down your responses to drama. Stay calm. Minimize the 5 components of parent attention you give to the drama, and frequently recognize appropriate behavior. You too will be amazed, because one day soon you will look around, and find your drama queen has moved on to appropriate responses that now have a better payoff.