Dear Dr. Yael,
I have an almost 12 year old daughter who used to be a well behaved, star pupil, but for the last year is not behaving so well and is fighting with her younger siblings a lot. She also has more chutzpah. I cannot blame this problem on Covid-19 since this change has been going on for awhile. My pediatrician thinks it’s hormonal and that she is struggling with an overload of hormones; However, I need to set boundaries. She instigates fights with her siblings for no apparent reason and it is making day-to-day life very difficult. We give her a lot of love and support, so I don’t think this behavior is attention seeking, but honestly I am at my wits end. She was involved in extra curricular activities, but now does not have that outlet, which gives her more time to annoy her siblings. She is very pretty, bright, and has friends Baruch Hashem, but at home has become very difficult. Most times she is contrite after she calms down, but this does not help when she is unreachable during these times. Please help us navigate this difficult task.
Thank you for reaching out about this common, but difficult issue. When children go through puberty, their personality definitely changes and it almost seems like they have been taken over by aliens! Puberty is a difficult time for children because they have all of these emotions coursing through them and they feel like they are going crazy. Chances are, even your child probably does not know why she is acting this way. I would start by sitting down with your daughter when she is in a good mood or lying with her before bedtime and talking to her about what is going on. Relate to your daughter that you see that she is having a harder time with her feelings lately and explain to her that it may be due to her body going through some changes. Ask her if she feels these ups and downs and if she sometimes feels her emotions are out of control. Explain to your daughter that this is normal and that soon her hormone levels will become more manageable. She may feel better just knowing that what she is feeling is “normal” and that other kids her age are also experiencing similar things. Try to empathize with your daughter about how hard this is for her and try to listen to her if she wants to talk to you about how she is feeling. Once she seems to have been able to express herself or once you think she is feeling understood, try to bring up how you are feeling in a respectful and non-defensive manner. You can say that you love her so much, but when she is chutzpadik or fighting with the other children it is very hard for you. Try to come up with a secret word you can say when she is in this mood to help her realize she is escalating and to calm down. It is also a good idea to help your daughter find a way to exercise to raise her endorphins and release some of that pent up energy. Additionally, getting enough sleep is very important as being tired can lead to more irritability and less control over our actions.
It is important to remember that nothing will work all of the time and that you will probably still have difficult moments, but it is how you handle these difficult moments that will determine how things turn out in the future. God-willing, this is just a stage and you will one day be able to look back at this and laugh about it, but for now it is very difficult and it is imperative that you try to stay calm. As hard as it is to stay calm, your daughter will likely escalate more if you do not stay calm. Keeping your voice low often helps people remain calmer. Also, taking deep breaths and reminding yourself to remain calm will also help. Giving small and fair consequences can also be useful if the talking and the secret word isn’t working, but try to allow your daughter to earn back privileges with good behavior.
Regardless of these ideas, this will likely be a hard time period for you. Try to pamper yourself as much as you can to stay calm and happy. Make sure to exercise and do things you enjoy to help you feel better, which will enable you to handle stress in a healthier manner.
Lastly, if none of these ideas are working and things seem to be getting worse, please seek out professional help for you and your daughter. Sometimes seeing a therapist for just a few sessions can help you get on the right path. Maybe there is something going on that you do not know about or maybe your daughter just needs someone else to speak with. Also, even if this was happening before quarantine, maybe Covid-19 is exacerbating the situation as well. Hatzlocha!