Help! My Granddaughter Is a Brat

Is a girl being raised by a single dad getting out of control?

By Susan Stiffelman

My 7-year-old granddaughter is being raised by her dad. She has become, for lack of a better word, a spoiled brat. Everyone caters to her every whim — even feeding her in the bathtub. She dictates what time, if any, she'll take a bath, and when she'll do her homework. She recently told me that I was "lazy" because I wouldn't take out a game for her. I have had it, and no longer enjoy babysitting her. I am the only one in her life with any rules at all. Help!

First, your granddaughter isn't a "brat." (I strongly dislike that word.) She's a rudderless ship, navigating her life without a reliable captain who's willing to take charge.

Help Wanted: Grown-Up

This may come as a surprise, but children do not like having too much power over the adults in their lives. As exhilarating as it might feel to tell grown-ups what to do, kids hunger for direction, guidance, and the comfort of depending on their caretakers. It sounds like her father has abdicated his role as captain of the ship and is taking what seems like the easy way out by allowing his child to run the show. This approach avoids conflict, negotiations, and power struggles, which can be tiring and exhausting for parents dealing with strong-willed children like your granddaughter. But that avoidance comes with a price: The child ends up insecure and angry because she intuitively recognizes that nobody's willing to take charge.

You don't mention a mother, but if Dad is raising this child alone, there must be some explanation behind Mom's absence. Whether she is ill, has died, or simply decided that she wasn't able to raise her daughter, there is probably a story here that has had an impact on the situation. While a father can be every bit as great a parent as a mother, it is still less conventional, and there is still something true about fathers sometimes being pushovers. Or it might be that because the child's mother is absent, her father is overcompensating for her loss by being too much of a softie. Rather than criticizing his parenting, show him what it would look like to calmly and confidently take charge when you're with your granddaughter.

Here's an example:

She: I want to eat my dinner in the bathtub!

You: I understand, sweetheart. That would be fun.

She: Yes, and if you don't bring it to me here, I won't eat it!

You: Well, it sounds like you were really hoping to eat it here in the bathtub. (Don't address the reasons she can't have what she wants. Simply acknowledge her wish, and let her know you understand that what she had hoped she could do.)

She: I'm not going to eat it unless you do what I say!

You: I hear you, honey. You decided you wanted to eat in the tub instead of at the table.

She: Yes! And you can't make me eat it at the table!

You: You're right about that …

Instead of continuing to battle this out, do something else. If you stop fueling the argument because you believe that you must "win," it will wither on the vine. When you make it clear to your granddaughter that you're in charge, you do not have to flaunt your power.

The Comfort of Home

Stop behaving as though you need her to do anything — whether it's eating dinner at the table or patiently waiting for you to get off the phone. Acknowledge her feelings without  getting into discussions about why she can't have what she wants. Provide her with the comfort and safety of being calmly and confidently in charge, without attempting to overpower her will. And help her dad learn how to step into his all-important role in his daughter's life so that she can relinquish control and relax.

Finally, thank her when she does do what she's asked, so she can start learning to associate better feelings with cooperating than she does with being defiant.

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