Q: With the end of school, I took my daughter to Portland overnight. Just a fun girls’ trip to spend some time together before the summer schedule starts. We haven’t been getting along well so I thought this would help. Instead it was awful, because my daughter was moody and rude to me the whole time. She kept saying things like “You never get it. I can’t stand you” and other rude things to me. I told her she better stop talking to me that way or else (but I’m not sure what “or else” would be). I don’t know what to do. She avoids me like the plague unless I’m buying her stuff, which I did a lot in Portland. It’s obvious I’ve really spoiled her. I don’t know how to get her to respect me or how to even talk to her anymore. I’m not going to tolerate her behavior, and I keep asking her why she’s so mean and rude, but I don’t get any answers and I don’t know how to change what’s going on. I’m feeling so angry and frustrated.

A: Your relationship with your daughter sounds challenging, although certainly not hopeless. It’s clear she can trigger you, creating disconnection, making it all but impossible to disengage and hear what her behavior is trying to tell you. Although you didn’t mention her age, I suspect she is an adolescent, trying hard to assert her independence. When you’re calm and emotionally present, you’ll have more success in connecting, gaining her cooperation. Of course, having established a negative pattern, this will take time, sustained commitment and consistency. You can just as easily react, triggered by your anger or frustration. Despite your best intentions, parents make mistakes. Be forgiving and patient with yourself as you begin reshaping this dynamic.

Your expectations of how your daughter should behave, and your own family of origin issues, undermine your ability to disengage and connect to the root of her problem. If you ask her “why” she’s behaving badly or treating you rudely, there will never be a right answer. It suggests blame. She doesn’t understand why she behaves a certain way, or why she wants something a particular way. “Why” questions are simply a means to release your frustration rather than acquire an honest answer. In this situation, connecting to your daughter’s emotions will be more helpful. My suggestion of an effective alternative to asking her “why?” might be: “You’re pretty frustrated with me. I’d like to hear what you have to say when you’re ready to speak to me in a way that I can listen.” Your daughter then feels heard, understood, supported by you. The mood will eventually shift, which is more likely to dissipate the tension. When you’re more confident, maintaining healthy boundaries, you won’t accept her rudeness. If you can walk away to focus on something else, letting go of the outcome, without blame or criticism, that gives her a chance to assume responsibility for how she wants to communicate differently. It’s important to remove yourself from a potential power struggle, which is a lose-lose.

While her behavior is both hurtful and insulting, she can easily trigger a reaction that will be damaging for your relationship. Try expressing how you feel when she treats you badly instead of shaming or attacking her. Your time and shared goals of a future fun trip might then be rescued. It’s never too late to revisit how you experienced the Portland overnight, sharing your disappointment and frustration without criticism or blame — simply through your lens, disclosing your feelings. Let her know you’d like to do it differently next time you plan something “fun” together, asking for her input on what she thinks would help. When/if you see her doing something that bothers you or that reflects how she behaved in Portland instead of what you expect, you could comment: “I’m upset that you’re doing ______. I’ve been looking forward to this time with you in the hotel and shopping together for some new summer clothes. We could return home without buying anything or we could make this a fun time. Your choice.” There is no blame or judgment. Then calmly follow through with whatever her behavior tells you. If her mood changes, that’s great. However, if she continues to attack you, let her know that the plans will be deferred to another time when she is feeling better. Given your daughter is probably also looking forward to the time with you, she will likely respond by shifting how she interacts with you. At that point, it’s helpful to acknowledge you appreciate her choice.

Sometimes our anger triggers reactions we regret. The only sure way to connect to the root of her emotions, to see what’s driving her behavior (other than adolescent hormones), is by disengaging. When we are drawn into power struggles, we become the same age as our child, with no hope of connection. Consider the impact on our child when we criticize, or show disapproval. Often parents lecture, using any time with their children as “teaching” opportunities, telling them how they “should behave,” or pointing out everything they’re doing wrong. Try to keep in mind that less is more! It’s our important work to assume responsibility for our personal “triggers,” the reactions we have, if we hope to establish healthy connection with our children.

“To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” — Fred Rogers

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