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Dear Mother Wit: “It Makes Me Feel Sick To My Stomach When I Spank My Niece”

Dear Mother Wit,

My sister got pregnant at a very young age by a man much older. She decided to keep the baby but as soon as she gave birth, as you can imagine, she became disinterested in parenthood. Four years later, my sister ends up pregnant with a second child, still living with my mother, no income, and not trying to do anything for herself or her children. My niece was getting ready to start pre-k but we all knew that my sister didn’t want to be a parent and just needed a reason(s) for us to continue taking care of her by continuing to have children.

My 6-year-old niece came to live with me and everything was smooth for about a month. She throws these AWFUL fits that I just can’t handle. When she was living with my mother she lived in a house full of people and discipline only existed when she made someone angry enough to spank her. She got whatever she want and did whatever she wanted. I haven’t been able to break that mentality and punishments do NOT work. She is  throwing a mega fit as I’m typing this because she has to go to bed early (because of another fit that she threw this morning). I’ve taken things away, tried time-out, talked, spanked, meditation corners, EVERYTHING and nothing works. She would also do this when she lived back home but anytime she would throw a fit they would just give in. She does it at least once of week at the slightest “no”. She back talks her teacher at school and constantly provokes me.

I’ve hit her out of anger but it makes me sick to my stomach every time. I never thought I would be the type of parent to spank.  I can’t take it anymore and I don’t know what else to do. Please help!



Dear Cameron,

I can feel and understand your frustration. Experts say that “every behavior meets a need.” Even dysfunctional behaviors. You know that your niece’s “need” is to get her own way, and her experience is that acting out will help her achieve that goal. You have a challenging job ahead, which is to find a way to change her “programming” and move into more productive behaviors.

Even if you don’t have a lot of money, are there resources for family therapy for the two of you? I think it might help (at least help you) to talk with an objective professional who can offer insights into your niece’s behavior, and help you brainstorm some solutions.

I’m wondering why your niece’s default seems to be rage at such a young age. Has acting out been the most effective way for her to get attention in the past? With kids, it’s easy to be casual when they’re acing right, and invest much more of our time and energy when they’re acting out.

Also: are you noticing patterns or triggers that set her off? If you can, try to pay attention to that. The hard part might be to remain calm yourself, and to (temporarily) forget about trying to be “in control” of your niece. It might seem counterintuitive, but take a step back. Which battles is she picking—and why?

Sometimes as parent figures, we have to examine our own wiring and unconscious responses. You listed many approaches to discipline and punishment…what would happen if you changed the game? If you hugged her and asked her what was bothering her, while speaking in a soft, calm voice and letting her know that you love her unconditionally, but that her behavior choices aren’t working in her favor. It never hurts to try something different—especially when it’s something that the child doesn’t expect from you.

Take a break from fussing at her and focus on praising what she’s doing right, even if it’s something really basic like getting dressed on time for school or eating a meal or doing a chore. Keeping her off balance by changing your behavior in positive ways can help to restore the balance of power to you. You want her responding to your energy rather than the dynamic you have now, where she is controlling everyone with her fits.

What would happen if you ignored her next fit—if you acted like nothing was happening? How would that make you feel? Could you pull that off?

Please also consider medical issues—sometimes allergies or eating too much sugar can contribute to misbehaviors in children. Have you had a doctor check her out and make nutritional recommendations?

Children will always try to engage adults in power struggle—that’s how they grow. And adults need lots of support and different ways to move out of power struggle and into maintaining the energy of being in charge—but not necessarily in a forceful way.

Finally, nothing is more frustrating than rearing children, and your niece sounds more frustrating than most. You need constructive, healthy ways to deal with your own frustration before interacting with hers. Deep breathing, a glass of tea, listening to soothing or uplifting movement, taking a minute to stretch and give thanks for what’s working in your life, even if it feels like everything is falling apart—those are some of the things I taught myself to do when my kids worked my last nerves.

Please check back in and let me know if any of these things work, and what you learn about her behavior, okay? I’m in your corner and cheering you on!

With love,

Mother Wit

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