Dear Therapist: Is My Middle Child a Monster?

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My middle child is not a monster. Her preschool teachers assure me that she’s well behaved. Like any kid, she has tantrums at home, but she’s not violent or uncontrollable. When we visit my side of the family, she is happy and carefree; they accept and love her for who she is. I’m so tired of people seeing only her bad traits. Do you have any advice on how we can address the issues on my husband’s side of the family?

Anonymous
Columbus, Ohio


Dear Anonymous,

As most parents of multiple children have observed, all people are born with a certain temperament, which is why siblings can be raised in the same environment and display wildly different dispositions. These inborn temperaments are often apparent from birth—the fussy baby, the “easy” baby—and because some personality types demand more parental patience and attention, they’re often given the label of “difficult.”

A child with this label may have a more intense emotional range than average, or may be more sensitive or inflexible. She may be considered “high energy” or “strong willed” or, as you describe your daughter, “persistent.” For these kids, moving through the world is just harder—whether that’s transitioning from the park to the car, finding an unfamiliar food on their plate, or not getting to go first in a board game. And as you’ve seen, many adults tend to find these kids challenging to be around, even if, like you with your daughter, they also see their gifts.

You’re asking how to handle your in-laws’ reaction to your daughter, but it might be helpful first for you and your husband to get clear about your own. Many parents of children like your daughter feel multiple and conflicting emotions—some of which they suppress, out of fear that they aren’t acceptable. In your case, you may be reacting to what is the great taboo of parenting: Some children are exponentially harder to raise, and that can make parenting them less enjoyable and more exhausting in the day-to-day.

You get angry and sad when others point out what you already know—that your daughter is more challenging than her siblings. But I wonder if this anger and sadness is partially displaced—if it’s more comfortable to be angry and sad because of how others feel about your daughter than to be angry and sad because of how you and your husband feel about her. Many parents of challenging children worry that if they acknowledge some of the emotions that raising their child engenders—frustration, resentment, sadness, envy of other parents—they’re somehow being disloyal or unloving. In short, “bad” parents.

The truth, though, is that you’re human, and there’s a big difference between seeing your daughter as a “monster” and seeing her as a challenging kid. I wonder how you and your husband have been able to talk with each other about your respective feelings toward your daughter. Are you able to create a space for each of you to share how you feel, or have you made the tacit agreement that you talk about her only in a positive light, thinking that this will protect her? In fact, it leaves her—and you—more vulnerable. Denying your feelings about your daughter prevents you from having a candid conversation—one that would help you cope better as a parent, which would in the long run help your daughter.

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