Question

I have a 11 year-old daughter who is pretty emotional and, quite frankly, overwhelms me. She requires a lot of my time and attention to work through her emotional issues. Sometimes I feel like she has this victim complex, but there are times I feel like she’s genuinely sad and needs support. I have no idea of when to push her to “snap out of it” and when to validate her emotions and comfort her. I’m all over the place with my responses and usually just end up getting irritated with her and raising my voice. I don’t know how to tell if she’s just playing me or if she’s really struggling.

Answer

Parenting is so challenging and full of constant uncertainty! The fact that you’re even asking this question shows your level of love and commitment to your daughter’s well-being. I trust that you will find the right balance with her so she can know of your love for her while still helping her grow and develop into an emotionally healthy woman. Let’s talk about how you can sort out what’s happening with her. 

Let’s first talk about the difference between feeling strong emotion and maintaining a victim complex. While it’s not always obvious from the outside what is going on inside of others, with a little time and focus, it can become clearer. I don’t believe children are as manipulative as we often believe. I believe children do what makes sense to them and it’s our job to help them see the impact they’re having on others. Labeling our young children as manipulators pits us against them and makes it difficult to see how we can guide them to healthier outcomes. 

Please recognize that you’re burned out in your interactions with her, so it’s likely you’re going to default to your belief that she’s manipulating you. Even though it will be difficult, make sure you enter these interactions with her from a place of openness and curiosity. Please trust that you can more clearly see her intentions if you begin with an open mind. 

As you interact with her, lead off with validation and “emotional first aid.” This simply means that you show empathy and concern for how she’s feeling. This will help reveal your first clue about her intentions. Generally speaking, if she’s truly hurting and needing support, validation and understanding will help calm her nervous system and slow her down. For most children, this type of support helps them co-regulate their bodies and emotions with you so they can better learn how to self-regulate on their own when they’re in distress. Please note that even though we need to learn how to self-regulate heightened emotions, we simply do it better in the presence of a loving relationship. Most of the time, this is all our children need so they can work out their own solutions. 

However, if your efforts to validate and empathize with her aren’t calming her and aren’t shifting her toward resolution, then let’s talk about the next step you can take. As you’re validating her emotions, watch to see if she can eventually shift into future-thinking that gives her personal empowerment. In other words, are her emotions leading her toward resolution and solutions to her problem. For example, if she’s upset about something a sibling did to her, you can show understanding of how sad or upset she is, but is she then willing to do something to resolve this? Is she willing to speak to her sibling and share how they hurt her? Is she willing to forgive and let it go? Is she open to looking at her part? There are plenty of directions something like this can go, but if she stays frozen in her emotions and won’t shift into forward movement, then this is where she’ll need some guidance and structure from you.

Before you start pushing her forward, pay close attention to other factors that might be influencing why she’s highly emotional and stuck. Is she hungry? Is she exhausted? Is she overwhelmed with other pressures (school, friends, schedule, or sports)? Does she need more time to process? Does she need more space and time to recharge (i.e., is she an introvert)? These are all factors we need to quickly scan so we don’t unintentionally make a tough situation worse. These are also factors that you can usually do something about in the moment and then teach her how to better care for herself so she doesn’t get overwhelmed and stuck in the future. 

If everything checks out and she’s still refusing to move forward with a solution, make sure your heart is in a good place before you begin guiding her out of this place. If you’re full of irritation and anger, give yourself a timeout and let her know you’ll be back to talk about this. High emotional states can fool us into believing we need to do something RIGHT NOW! However, it’s simply not true. We can take as much time as we need and revisit these conversations with a calmer nervous system and an open heart.

Reflect back to her that she’s obviously very distressed about this and you want to help her find a way out of this. If she’s stuck in blame and acting powerless, you can reflect back to her what you’re seeing. Let her know that she’s not powerless and she can make decisions about what to do next. She may not be happy with her options, but this is where your firm guidance and support is critical. There is nothing wrong with being emotional, even highly emotional. But, if those emotions don’t move us toward taking personal responsibility for our lives and relationships, then we are lying to ourselves. 

You can give her ideas, but don’t do the work for her. Let her decide how she wants to respond in these situations and then experience the consequences. Using the previous example, if she refuses to talk to her sibling, take personal responsibility, or ask for what she needs, then she will have to live with the reality that she’s still in the same place. As Dr. Haim Ginott teaches in his book, “Between Parent and Child”, you can be permissive with her emotions but strict with her behavior. You can expect her to be respectful to her family members and those around her, even though she’s sad. Your refusal to let her emotional state become an excuse for improper behaviors is what will keep her from living life like a victim. 

Children need our help and support to make sense of their strong feelings. You can help her identify what she’s feeling and help her explore real solutions. Sometimes the solution is to just name the emotions. Sometimes it requires more direct action. Either way, if she’s moving through these experiences and growing from them, then you’re doing exactly what she needs from her parent. She may feel things more deeply and require more time and attention, but she can learn how to properly use her sensitive spirit to guide her in relationships. 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com 

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children. 

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT