Q: Our 8-year-old daughter tries to manipulate us and her siblings (she is the youngest of three) with emotional outbursts and whining when things don’t go her way. She is mostly a delightful, cheerful child but this bothersome cycle flares up at least every other day. For the time being at least, she only behaves this way at home. I think she would be embarrassed to behave this way in front of other people, including her friends.
A: Allow me to begin by offering a hopefully helpful correction: your daughter is not “mostly a delightful, cheerful child.” She would be mostly wonderful to be around if and only if the emotional blackmail in question did not occur “at least every other day.” That means these outbursts occur more than every other day, which means they occur more than 183 days a year, which means she is sometimes but not mostly delightful. The potential for improvement is definitely there, however.
If you took your daughter to a mental health professional, your description would probably provoke a diagnosis of childhood bipolar disorder, or whatever they are calling it these days. Ignoring for the moment the fact that there is no good science behind this supposed biochemical malfunction (the specific chemicals or nature of said malfunction having never been unequivocally identified), she is not bipolar. A disorder does not operate with the discrimination you describe. If something was “wrong” with her, she would be obnoxious in front of friends, their parents, teachers, and the people in white coats who came to take her away (tra la, for those who appreciate the reference).
She’s not manipulative either. Not yet, anyway. She’s not old enough to be behaving in this most terrible manner with purpose. Mind you, she sometimes achieves a purpose, but ends do not prove means. She has simply developed some very bad emotional habits that will, if not nipped in the bud, prove very disadvantageous to her in the not-all-that-distant future. So, let’s nip this in the bud. I’m fairly certain I know how to do so.
Tell her that you spoke with the "World’s Most Amazing Parenting Expert" about her temper tantrums. He told you that little girls who are inhabited by such emotional demons (however you want to put that) are not getting enough sleep. As we all know, lack of sleep causes all manner of irrational behavior, even in adults. Some children need more sleep than others and her outbursts are simply indication that sleep is the answer—and the more, the better. So, until her outbursts stop and do not resurface for thirty straight days, she absolutely must be in bed no later than 6:30 every night. If she voluntarily goes to bed at least 30 minutes earlier than 6:30, she gets credit for two days. In the meantime, no birthday parties, special events, or after-school activities that would keep her up past the appointed hour. And no sleepovers either, needless to say.
Put a 30-day chart on the refrigerator so she can see her progress, but remember, if she has a relapse, the current chart comes down and a new one goes up. It may take her a while—I predict two to three months—but if my experience serves me well, she will be a truly delightful and cheerful child by then.