Q: Our four-year-old daughter has become extremely difficult to deal with this past year. She is the older of our two children. Her brother was born eight months ago.
Most of the time, she is gentle, eidel and very lovable. But sometimes, she can become stubborn and defiant. If we take her to the park or the playground, she can absolutely refuse to leave. Yes, we do give her ample warnings. And, no, we do not expect her to leave abruptly. But when we say, ’re going to have to leave in 10 minutes,” she will respond with, “No we won’t!” Bedtime is another tug of war.
We have tried rewards, prizes and charts. We have also tried punishments. Nothing seems to work. This has been going on for over a year, although it has gotten worse more recently, which is why we are writing now.
This tough, defiant attitude seems so out of character. When she is with other children, even our next-door neighbors, she is docile, shy and timid. In fact, it will usually take her a long time before she warms up enough to play with other children. Until she does, she will stick with us, literally holding tightly onto our clothes. We are really baffled by her behavior. What can you recommend?
A: These two seemingly disparate facets of your daughter’s personality could be two sides of the same coin. And understanding how this is so can help you develop the proper approach to help her.
An elderly person who needs more moral support than physical assistance in order to get across the street will gently hold onto your arm. A blind person, R”L, however, who is completely incapable of navigating a crosswalk, will grasp your arm much more tightly. This is so because the more helpless and dependent we feel, the more desperately we cling to any source of support and comfort.
The Torah describes the ultimate sense of helplessness as, “a blind person groping in the dark” (Devarim 28:29). And on this passuk Rabi Yossi asked: What difference does it make to the blind man if it is dark or light? He answered that when there is light, others can see and assist the blind man. When it is dark, however, the sightless person cannot even rely on others. (Megilah 24b)
Your daughter feels fearful when encountering strangers. She therefore clings tightly to you whenever she is in social situations away from home. Eventually, of course, she is tempted by the fun she sees others having. And this enables her to overcome her anxieties and join in the play. Because she is so excessively dependent upon you, she not only clings to you but she also attempts to control you. And the defiance she displays at times represents her way of trying to reassure herself that she has you where she wants you.
Overly dependent adults act similarly to your daughter. Although they will not physically hold onto those upon whom they are dependent, they will nonetheless attempt to dominate those who they feel are vital for their sense of security. It could be a spouse, a friend or even a therapist, for example, who is giving reassurance, support and/or guidance. The dependent person may then become manipulative or hostile as he or she tries to control the relationship. This is not a case of biting the hand that feeds. Rather, it is an attempt to guarantee that the source of support will remain connected to the one who so desperately needs it.
I recall one young mother, for example, who had been victimized as a young girl. This trauma caused her to subtly validate her young son’s fear of strangers. Moreover, she accepted and subtly encouraged him to cling to her, thereby delaying his independence which made her anxious.
The solution to your dilemma, therefore, is to help your daughter develop greater independence, which will eliminate her need for clinging and controlling. The question then becomes, how do you build independence in a shy, fearful four-year-old? And the answer is that you must orchestrate opportunities for healthy, age-appropriate separation.
For example, you should be arranging play dates for your daughter on a frequent basis. If your daughter does not attend a preschool, that would be another important step for her. If she cannot tolerate the separation, then settle on a playgroup. Either way, you must begin to wean her from her over-attachment to both of you.
Finally, another strategy is to leave her for short periods with a babysitter. Some parents balk at babysitters because they want to spare their children the pain of separation. When children are exposed to such brief separations, however, they increase their coping skills, developing both confidence and independence.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.