Dear Tzippora,

Sometimes I think my oldest daughter feels her sole purpose in life is to give me a hard time. She is openly critical of me, quick to point out my mistakes, and permanently straddles the fence between outspokenness and downright rudeness. It is hard to live with such a critical presence in the house. She is only ten, and I shudder to think what she will be like as an adolescent. She is not as critical of her father as she is of me. How can I persuade her to let up on me?

Mother of a Critical Daughter

Dear Mother of a Critical Daughter,

It is very unpleasant for anyone to live with a barrage of criticism, and it is especially inappropriate for a child, especially a preadolescent, to be allowed to be so openly critical of a parent.

This pattern was not formed overnight. I wonder why you have allowed her to be so critical of you until now. It is important to ask this question of yourself. Once a particular pattern of interaction becomes established within a family, it takes tremendous patience and persistence to undo it.

Your letter reminds me of an interaction I once witnessed between a woman and her daughter. The woman mistakenly greeted her daughter's friend by the wrong name, whereupon the daughter lashed out at her mother for her mistake. The woman turned to her daughter and very firmly put her in place. She told her "I may be mistaken in this case, but I am still your mother; I expect to be addressed with respect at all times." Her message to her daughter was clear.

I share this story with you because I believe it illustrates the message you must transmit to your own daughter. The message is that "As your mother I do not have to earn your respect by being foolproof. I am allowed to make mistakes, and you are obligated to respect me nonetheless."

Your daughter will initially resist being asked to change her manner of speaking to you. You will need to believe that you are truly entitled to the respect you demand from her in order to persevere in the face of her opposition. Your husband will be a crucial player in breaking this dynamic as well. He should support the new rules, and be ready to enforce consequences for disobedience and chutzpah.

Expect your daughter to be particularly sullen and sulky while she adjusts to your new expectations for her. Expect her to slip back into the old pattern when she is particularly tired, frustrated, or upset. People do not change their habits overnight. However, with time, she will come to understand what is expected of her and begin to express herself more appropriately.

Learning how to express oneself is a valuable life skill, and one that your daughter will certainly require as the lady of her own home. You can be confident that despite the initial pain and discomfort you will cause her by forcing her to adopt a more respectful attitude towards you, in the long run, it will help her build stronger and healthier relationships with those around her.

Thanks for writing,

Tzippora Price, M.Sc.