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Ask Mark Manley Your Own Question
Mark Manley
Mark Manley, Therapist
Category: Mental Health
Satisfied Customers: 402
Experience:  Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Over 15 years exp. Married 30 years and happy.
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My neice abandoned her daughter to her mom, my sister. They

Customer Question

My neice abandoned her daughter to her mom, my sister. They had been living with me for 4 years since her daughter was 2 months old after my sister kicked her out of the house. I fought and won 'pretend custody' of the daughter about 6 months ago (total time with grandma was about 6 months). My neice, her mom, pops in about once a month for 10 minutes, then disappears again. The child has since created a fantasy that her mother is a saint and I am only to be tolerated until her mother returns (the mother continues to say she's coming back for her), but has taken absolutely no action to make this happen. I should also mention that the mother abandoned the child when she fell in love with a man and married him after knowing him for 3 weeks. The man did not want to be a parent and gave the mother a choice: him or the child. The mother chose him. The child does not know this. It's been nearly 6 months since I've had the child back. We live in a wonderful neighborhood and she goes to a fantastic school. She has the pink room she always wanted and I thought we were enjoying a nice life until about a month ago when she started to challenge nearly everything I asked of her. Then, she started to hit and kick our dogs (2 dogs, 5 pounds each), and me! Tonight, when she was playing dangerously close to a glasstop coffeetable and I reminded her to play where it was safe, she snapped, pushed me, then hid under the dining table when I told her it was time for a time-out. Not feeling up to another episode where I have to pull and drag her to her room, I turned around when I saw her running as fast as she could toward me with the meanest face I've seen on her and she was growling. She nearly pushed me over. I grabbed her arms, but could not control her. Her mother was like this as a teenager. Her grandmother (my sister) was like this nearly her entire life. I'm worried this child is the same and I already know that I'm not cut out for handling violent outbursts and behavior leading to teenage pregnancy, drug use and an arrest record. Am I overreacting? What can I do to help her?
Submitted: 5 years ago.
Category: Mental Health
Expert:  Mark Manley replied 5 years ago.
I am afraid my view is very pessimistic. There is scientific data that confirms my personal observation that this type of oppositional and defiant behavior is often inherited biologically. For more information you may want to look at the sites listed below.
Sorry to I couldn't give you better news.
If you decide to keep her with you the key to survival will be to get all the support you can muster in every area of your life and hers. A good place to start is National Alliance on Mental Illness.
My heart goes out to you and to your niece.
Mark Manley
Customer: replied 5 years ago.
Hi, Mark - thanks for your reply, but I'm saddened still further that your answer does not provide the immediate actionable help I was looking for. I'd like to pass on your answer and request that my post be available for another expert to answer, please? Thank you.
Expert:  Mark Manley replied 5 years ago.
Are you looking for behavior management strategies to implement with her? The more specific you formulate your question the better we can get an answer for you.
Customer: replied 5 years ago.

Yes, I need help. I've always believed that if we got to my sister and later my niece early in their development that their lives would have been better: productive, happy, pain-free. I want to help break this chain of pain. Maybe I'm putting too much history on this child, but damn, she scared me tonight.

If you could help me to know what to do: do I keep her engaged in classes, activities, prevent her from watching television, not allow her to eat anything with sugar??? What do I do when a time-out is only going to make it worse? I'm exhausted at the drag-outs we've been having and she's freakishly strong, so when she hits and kicks - it hurts. The trouble always comes when I tell her to do something. Example: Susie, clean-up your art project and get ready for dinner. Reponse: No, you do it. I explain to her at that point that she must do it or there will be a consequence and she has one chance to do it. She then crosses her arms and says, No - you do it. So, I tell her I'm counting to 3, then it's a time-out. Then she gets a taunting smile on her face and I can see her tense up as I start to count. 1. she does nothing. 2. she leans in. 3. she does nothing. So, I try to lead her to the time-out place and she throws herself on the floor, then starts to kick. I've managed to out-muscle her a few times, but it's really hard, and it hurts, and I really, really, really hate fighting with her or anyone. And this is the escalation part, but I find I'm nearly always frustrated or angry and that my days are filled with coming up with activities and strategies to put her energy into something productive only to be irritated most of time b/c she challenges nearly everything I ask of her. The 1-2-3 works sometimes, but she always waits for 3 and this wears me down. In addition to all of this, she yells at me telling me she'll call her mom on me to call the police (if she can't have an ice cream, play late, has to brush her teeth, etc., etc.), and reminds me that her mom will come back for her and I'm nobody. I once cherished this child as the daughter I never had. She was a joy in my life and something snapped or I just suck as a stand-in Mom.

Expert:  Mark Manley replied 5 years ago.
The first thing you have to do is learn to accept that nature has dealt this child a very difficult deck. Naturally you want to see this child as normal and thus believe that if you are a good enough stand-in mom she will behave and develop normally. You have to really get it in your head and heart, THIS CHILD IS NOT NORMAL AND YOU AREN'T GOING TO MAKE HER NORMAL. Denial of this fact may help you feel better at times but it won't serve you or the child well for any length of time.
Next study study and study regarding Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).
Third, don't expect to find many concrete answers regarding ODD that all the experts agree on, because there aren't many.
Fourth, don't ever judge your effectiveness as a parent by your interaction with this child. The very best of parents in the best of situations will have continual struggles with their ODD child. Parenting a highly compliant child can leave you believing that you are a great parent and parenting an ODD child can leave you believing you are the worst parent in the world. Neither are true. As a parent you probably visit both poles and live somewhere in between. Another way to put this is, you must not personalize your child's behavior.
Largely it's not in your control you didn't cause it, you can't fix it but you can attempt to control and channel it.
Fifth, Burn out can occur on a daily basis multiple times per day when parenting an ODD child. This is where building your support system is key. You must have a network of support people to assist you with raising this child or you will be too stressed to be effective and you will burn out before you get her raised.
As for specific behavioral interventions, what you are doing currently will suffice until you do most of the steps above, at which time, based on your study you will have a good idea what small new steps you should implement in your over all plan.
One specific piece of behavioral intervention advice I would recommend at this time is: Choose your battles and choose them carefully. What I mean by this is pick one or two behaviors to work on and focus your efforts on those. This means you will have to choose to let some bad behavior go by with out consequences. This is done to preserve your sanity and the child's and to keep you fresh for battle. Also whenever possible time out the object rather than the child. It is easier to pick up and put the paints in time out than it is the child.
Don't hesitate to enlist the assistance of a child psychologist, physician, parenting course, support group etc.
Hope this helps.
Mark Manley