Dear Therapist: Is My Middle Child a Monster?

Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My husband and I have three terrific kids, ages 6, 4, and 2. Our oldest is cautious, helpful, and precocious. Our youngest is easygoing, affectionate, and goofy. Our middle child is persistent, bold, imaginative, and tenderhearted. Her personality is not as easy as her siblings’, but she’s a great kid. If she makes me want to pull my hair out five times a day, then she makes me laugh, surprises me, or melts my heart 10 times a day.

The problem comes from others. Our elderly next-door neighbor dotes on the oldest and youngest and all but ignores the middle one. More than once, she has asked whether our doctors have diagnosed her with any disorders. I just look at her as if I don’t understand her question. I’ve had others “praise” me for being so patient with our middle child. These kinds of comments make me so angry and sad.

We recently visited my husband’s family, and I grew resentful of the way my in-laws talked about and treated our middle child. Conversations seemed to focus on all the bad things she had done that day, or ever in her life. I’m sensitive that these narratives we tell repeatedly can lock a kid into acting a certain way, especially when she is treated differently by the adults around her. My husband’s parents played favorites with him and his siblings, and one sibling has suffered long-lasting trauma from this, and now has several mental-health issues. The final straw was when our oldest picked up on the comments from the adults, and started joining in the criticism of her younger sister. I scolded my oldest with hopes that the adults around the table would take the message to heart, but I didn’t address their behavior directly. My husband and I have discussed these issues since the visit, but we are both at a loss as to how to improve things.

More in this series

My middle child is not a monster. Her preschool teachers assure me that she’s well behaved. Like any kid, she has tantrums at home, but she’s not violent or uncontrollable. When we visit my side of the family, she is happy and carefree; they accept and love her for who she is. I’m so tired of people seeing only her bad traits. Do you have any advice on how we can address the issues on my husband’s side of the family?

Anonymous
Columbus, Ohio


Dear Anonymous,

As most parents of multiple children have observed, all people are born with a certain temperament, which is why siblings can be raised in the same environment and display wildly different dispositions. These inborn temperaments are often apparent from birth—the fussy baby, the “easy” baby—and because some personality types demand more parental patience and attention, they’re often given the label of “difficult.”

A child with this label may have a more intense emotional range than average, or may be more sensitive or inflexible. She may be considered “high energy” or “strong willed” or, as you describe your daughter, “persistent.” For these kids, moving through the world is just harder—whether that’s transitioning from the park to the car, finding an unfamiliar food on their plate, or not getting to go first in a board game. And as you’ve seen, many adults tend to find these kids challenging to be around, even if, like you with your daughter, they also see their gifts.

You’re asking how to handle your in-laws’ reaction to your daughter, but it might be helpful first for you and your husband to get clear about your own. Many parents of children like your daughter feel multiple and conflicting emotions—some of which they suppress, out of fear that they aren’t acceptable. In your case, you may be reacting to what is the great taboo of parenting: Some children are exponentially harder to raise, and that can make parenting them less enjoyable and more exhausting in the day-to-day.

You get angry and sad when others point out what you already know—that your daughter is more challenging than her siblings. But I wonder if this anger and sadness is partially displaced—if it’s more comfortable to be angry and sad because of how others feel about your daughter than to be angry and sad because of how you and your husband feel about her. Many parents of challenging children worry that if they acknowledge some of the emotions that raising their child engenders—frustration, resentment, sadness, envy of other parents—they’re somehow being disloyal or unloving. In short, “bad” parents.

The truth, though, is that you’re human, and there’s a big difference between seeing your daughter as a “monster” and seeing her as a challenging kid. I wonder how you and your husband have been able to talk with each other about your respective feelings toward your daughter. Are you able to create a space for each of you to share how you feel, or have you made the tacit agreement that you talk about her only in a positive light, thinking that this will protect her? In fact, it leaves her—and you—more vulnerable. Denying your feelings about your daughter prevents you from having a candid conversation—one that would help you cope better as a parent, which would in the long run help your daughter.

Once you’re able to integrate the deep love you have for your child with the very real frustrations you and your husband inevitably experience, you’ll be able to talk to others about how to better understand and relate to her without denying the reality of their experience.

With your in-laws, you and your husband can start by acknowledging that your daughter’s temperament might require more patience, and that you know they want all of their grandchildren to grow into the best versions of themselves. You can empathize with the frustrating experiences they’ve had with her, and also share with them the parts of her they may not have had the opportunity to see. You can let them know that children are attuned to how adults view them, and that while you’re certain they would never intentionally hurt their granddaughter, she will come to view herself through the same lens the adults in her life view her through. And you can say that by interacting with her in a more effective way, they will begin to see her differently, reflect a different image back to her, and find their time with her far more mutually enjoyable.

If they’re open to that possibility, you can share the strategies that work for you with your daughter at home—or those that work for her teachers at preschool. When she misbehaves, for instance, perhaps you address the feeling underlying the behavior (“You seem frustrated that you can’t go first, and it feels so unfair. Maybe next time you’ll go first, but right now, do you want to join in the game or go take a walk with me?”). Maybe you’ve found it useful to help her regulate her emotions by giving her choices, but limited to two (“Do you want to watch this movie or that one?”). Or perhaps you counteract some of the negative reactions she often gets by offering a praise sandwich (“You’ve been so flexible with eating later at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and we’ve all been so impressed with that. But right now you’re having trouble waiting. I know you’ve had great ideas before for how to wait—what do you think would help more than what you’re doing now?”).

Your in-laws may take some time to implement these strategies, but the more they see how they help your daughter—and therefore allow them to have pleasant interactions with her—the more balanced their view of her will become.

A problem can be addressed only once it’s acknowledged, and you may also want to give some thought to how you talk about your middle child with her siblings. Instead of shutting down your oldest child’s feelings about her sister, consider that challenging children are challenging siblings as well, and to ease the family burden, many less challenging siblings cast themselves in helpful and easygoing roles. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings about their sibling, or don’t have needs of their own that might get overlooked given the higher-maintenance sibling’s demands on parental time and attention.

Ask your oldest daughter how she feels when her sister acts out, and instead of talking her out of her less-than-positive feelings, let her know that it’s perfectly okay to love a person and also sometimes wish they’d go away. It’s a lesson that will serve everyone—you, your husband, your middle daughter, her siblings, and your in-laws—well.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.