Ask Dr D; ‘My daughter is out of control’

RACHEL: Thank you so much for seeing me. There is just such a lot going on… I’ll tell you as we go but really it’s mainly my daughter.  I am desperately worried. She is totally out of control.

DW: You are clearly in a state and we will talk about it in detail. Please first tell me a little about you, your family and your current situation.

RACHEL: I’m married and have been for 17 years – in a fashion that is.  At last we are getting divorced. It’s an ongoing, very stressful, acrimonious and difficult process.  My husband … whew! How can I possibly begin to tell you about the lies, the manipulation, the lack of support and how he’s “got to” the children?

DW: So it’s not only now, but for many years that you have been going through a hard time?

RACHEL: Absolutely, you have no idea!

DW: How many children are there?

RACHEL: We have four children, from 10 – 16, three girls and a boy and it’s my 13 year old that (starts to cry). I am so desperate.

DW: What is it Rachel?

RACHEL: Okay, so I’ll tell you… She does whatever she likes, gets whatever she likes and goes wherever she likes. She often misses school. You should see how she is dressing, very high heels and short skirts. She wears thick make-up and has dyed her hair black. She’s only been at the school for one term and I’ve had numerous phone calls…

DW: Explain to me how she got to this point. Where are her parents? What role are you playing?

RACHEL: This is the very hardest part, she has hardly spoken to me for nine months now. I am so scared. I’m scared for her.

DW: And you’re scared for you. You have no control and you feel you’ve lost your daughter.

RACHEL: I might as well tell you although it sounds so ridiculous, she abuses me too. I mean she throws drinks at me or all over me.  She screams and shouts, hits and pulls hair…

DW: It sounds like you as a 45 year old mother feel helpless in the face of this 13 year old. What do you do? And how did you move from being a parent …

RACHEL: No no, I am her mother. I am her parent but I know what you mean. I can’t do anything. Of course I have tried to stop her and she just goes on. So the most I can ever do is just tell her, her behaviour is unacceptable and leave the room.

DW: Where is her father?

RACHEL: Well he is the one who just gives into her, I mean whatever she wants.  He doesn’t stop her behavior and I believe that somewhere he wants her to hate me. That means that I’m the bad one.

DW: Why do you believe he wants you to be the bad one?

RACHEL: Well, what he wants is to keep all the children. He says that I’m crazy or at best “not well” and he’s out to prove it.

DW: On what basis?

RACHEL: Okay so I have to tell you… there was a time about four years ago when I was diagnosed with  depression. I was hospitalised for a short while and treated with medication. But I’m fine now. I’m honestly fine, other than all the stress and anxiety. He accuses me and tells my kids all sorts of things that are lies, all lies. But I think my daughter has been sort-of-like brainwashed. I mean there is no reason for this hate and anger. We used to have a good relationship.

DW: You are angry, frightened and you miss her so much.

RACHEL: (Nods and is tearful) Look she will definitely go with her father. There is no doubt about that. But how do I deal with her, with this behavior? And how do I get her back?

DW: You know I’m sure that just as scared as you are. Kids who are so out of control, who have no limits or discipline and so vengeful especially when the relationship was previously good, do crave and need parameters, boundaries and most of all love. I’m sure your daughter feels desperately insecure. Often,  it becomes more about winning or loosing, about a power struggle than being happy.

RACHEL: I know this. I know what she needs. I know what caused it. I don’t know what to do.

DW: Of immediate importance is assistance in behavioural control. Together with this, she needs understanding and support.  We need to understand what this acting out behavior is attempting to express. However, the primary intervention are the limits and parameters with clear consequences.

RACHEL: Yes, yes I know all of this. It’s the HOW??

DW: Two ways as a start. She needs to see an experienced professional who will begin to relate to her but will not be manipulated.

RACHEL: Stop right there. Even her father says he has suggested this and she totally refuses… I mean is adamant that she will not see anyone again. She has been even before this all started, to someone in the past but as soon as limits were being enforced she just left.

DW: Both you and her father are being totally controlled by a thirteen year old. She is not in a position to refuse help and you love her too much to watch her deteriorating in front of you.  Leaving it alone is no longer an option, not at all.

RACHEL: Do you think boarding school?

DW: Perhaps but not initially. There are other ways that haven’t been tried, not properly. What about her school?  They have a psychologist and have expressed concern. The therapist indeed has a difficult assignment. While also supporting the agreed upon limits she must gain your child’s respect and affection, while attempting to engage her in reconsidering her negative attitudes towards you.

It requires patience, warmth and caring. The therapist must be willing and able to listen to her complaints however trivial or false, without prematurely confronting or criticising her, otherwise she will just clam up.

The school also needs to call in both parents. After all you are and will always be parenting partners.

RACHEL: We disagree on everything.

DW: Do you think your bitterness towards each other is greater than the love of your child?  Obviously the best case scenario would be if your daughter could see you both calmly talking to each other about her welfare. But even if this isn’t possible, this is not about you. You have to agree independently if not together, on the behaviours which are destructive and dysfunctional. Then with a psychologist you will discuss limits and consequences. If your child does “X”, she must expect “Y”.  Outbursts that come from nowhere, rules that are ignored one minute and then rigorously enforced the next, rewards promised but not delivered and other inconsistencies in parenting methods can produce anxious untrusting insecure children and eventually adults.

RACHEL: It’s going to be really hard.

DW: Of course it is. In your position you want to do everything to make your child love you. You distrust your own ability to influence and structure her and be loved at the same time. It is very difficult for you when you are trying to reconnect to enforce boundaries. You worry that your child will simply stay away even more.

RACHEL: Exactly!… (Long pause) Sometimes I feel so weak…

DW: Look, you may think that you failed as a parent, you haven’t. You just have more work to do and you need the support and help in order to do it.

RACHEL: I have to do this. I just have to.

DW: It’s not only about boundaries. It’s about praise too, whenever you possibly and realistically can.  It’s about experiencing you as much as possible in a warm and relaxed atmosphere. Also, it is important for your daughter to see you in an environment say with family where people show you respect and high regard.

RACHEL: Thank goodness she will go to my parents occasionally or to my brother.

DW: Remember if the parameters are fair and consistently enforced and the love is there, your child will not only adjust to them but will feel safe and reassured that you care enough.  This is about the rest of her life.


There are many unexplored issues. The question of parental alienation needs to be considered. Rachel’s past depression further discussed. The priority however was crisis intervention for this child. Hence the session was fairly directive and not explorative.

One month later:-

Rachel immediately went to the school for help with her daughter and has engaged in her own personal therapy.  She is more determined than she has been for years and is reclaiming her life and hopefully in time her child.