Raising a drama queen

Would your kid win the award for best actor in a melodrama? Mine could.

Photo: Alex and Laila/Getty Images

Act I, scene one. (A community pool.) About 15 parents are sitting hunched over on a bench against a wall. They’re watching their offspring splash around with varying degrees of skill. It’s about 40 minutes into their weekly swim class when one six-year-old gets out of the water. Dripping wet and shivering, she scurries over to the bench and stands in front of her mom.

GIRL: “I need to go to the bathroom.”
MOTHER (unimpressed): “Really? You went before the class.”
GIRL (grabs her crotch): “I need to go again.”
MOTHER: “We discussed this before your lesson. Last week you left the pool three times. Remember our deal? If you go to the bathroom, we go home.”
GIRL (starts to cry, holds crotch tighter): “But I have to pee. I really, really need to go, Mama!”
MOTHER (feels the stares of the other parents; a few snickers): “I don’t believe you. Go back to your lesson.”
GIRL (crying, hopping from one foot to the other): “Mama! I really need to go! I’m not lying. Pleeeeaassse.”
MOTHER (feeling like the worst mother on the planet): “OK. Fine.”

That was my daughter, Rory, who’s now seven, and me last year. For the record, she didn’t need to go. She just wanted a break from the lesson. Rory has always been known for her flair for the dramatic. Friends, teachers, babysitters and daycare providers have described her as “a real character,” “full of personality,” “seven going on 30,” and “a spit- fire drenched in pink.” All are code for the same thing: She’s a drama queen.

Drama queen defined
Parenting expert and psychotherapist Alyson Schafer says a drama queen is usually a kid who uses his or her emotions to manipulate, and whose emotional reactions are disproportionate in intensity to the situation. “Like someone who wants their sandwich cut on a diagonal as opposed to straight, and then completely falls apart like it’s the end of the world,” she says.

And that is Rory in a nutshell. Recently, my husband, Todd, decided to make a special breakfast of french toast before we went out to see a movie. Rory took one look at her plate and started whimpering as she pushed the bread around with her fork. After a heavy sigh, she took a small bite and pretended to gag while she swallowed.

“I’m not hungry,” she whined. “Do I have to eat this?”

“No, but then no popcorn at the movie – since you aren’t hungry,” I replied. She groaned and began her signature fake, tearless cry.

“Rory, if you keep this up then you’re not going to the movie at all,” I told her firmly. “If you don’t want to eat it that’s fine, but crying isn’t appropriate. You have two seconds to stop this behaviour.”

She continued to cry. I told her she just lost going to the movie. Realizing things weren’t going as planned, she tried a different tactic: “But I didn’t want to hurt Todd’s feelings by saying I didn’t like it!”

When that didn’t reinstate the movie, she ran to her room in hysterics, declaring: “No one loves me. Everyone is mean to me. I hate my life.” (That didn’t work, either, but she also didn’t have to eat the french toast.)

Boys, too
While Rory is clearly a drama queen, there are plenty of drama kings out there, too. “I feel like it’s pretty much 50/50 boys and girls,” says grade-four teacher Laine Anderson, judging from the students she’s had in her Vancouver classroom. “I can think of many boys over the past few years especially who are drama kings.”

Misty Murphy of Lorne, NB, has a melodramatic son, Hunter, who’s seven. “My son overreacts when he gets home from school and supper is cooking. He is absolutely ‘starving’ and can’t wait 10 minutes because he’s ‘going to die,’” she writes on Facebook. “He also does this at the grocery store in order to score treats. People must think we really are starving him!”

Early start
Dramatic kids definitely know how to get attention. I knew I had a determined child from the get-go when the delivery room nurses said: “Wow. She’s loud! You won’t need a baby monitor for that kid.” The wailing continued when we got home, and it didn’t stop. What is going on? I thought. And what am I doing wrong?

My answer came via Tracy Hogg’s book Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. In it, Hogg describes five different baby personalities. Number four is the spirited child, who “emerges from the womb knowing what she likes and doesn’t like, and she won’t hesitate to let you know it.” These babies are “vocal” and “even aggressive at times,” as well as high energy, feisty and very active. Toddler Rory was just as vocal. By three, she added an intense whine to her crying. Transitions were the hardest for her. When I came to get her from daycare, she would cry and whimper that she didn’t want to go. And it didn’t stop when we got to the car. (She’s persistent, too.)

Source of the drama
Dramatic outbursts can be learned from emotional, sulky or perfectionist parents. Schafer points out that by making statements like, “You’re making me angry,” or “I’m very disappointed in you,” (guilty as charged), I’m actually setting a bad example by using emotion to get what I want. The silent treatment is another form of emotional manipulation some parents use. A recent trauma, such as the loss of a pet or a relative, can sometimes result in increased sensitivity, too.

Schafer explains that kids use misbehaviour to achieve one of four goals: attention, power, revenge or avoidance. “Usually, when you dig down, there’s something else going on. It’s usually feeling victimized, feeling treated unfairly, treated improperly.”

Melodramatic kids tend to be rigid in their thinking and have a strong sense of right and wrong, which only contributes to the intensity of their reactions to even the smallest of things.

Janet Harder of Airdrie, Alta., has a dramatic daughter, Maggie, who’s four. “What does she overreact to? Her socks get caught on her toes, her spoon fell on the floor, she spilled two drops of milk, I’m brushing her hair wrong,” says Harder. “When she decides something isn’t right she crinkles her face, clenches her teeth and lets out this awful whine. Many times she’ll add running to her room.”

Parenting tips
For this reason, consistency is key for us parents with spirited kids. So when we say we’re going to leave the park in five minutes, we don’t stop and chat with a friend for another 20. (I’m definitely guilty of that one, too. Sigh.)

We can also teach them more appropriate ways to reach their goals, role-playing and practising appropriate responses to common situations your child tends to overreact to. One parent I spoke with switches roles with her daughter, pretending to be the kid. “First we do the inappropriate reaction where I go way over the top, then she tells me what to change to have a more appropriate reaction. It works, but we have to go over things a lot for this to have any effect.”

Sensitive kids tend to feel more empowered when they have even just a bit more control in their lives – even something as simple as letting them cut their own sandwich. I’ve let Rory dress herself since she was two. This meant she wore a tiara for the entire year she was three, but it has also meant little-to-no drama around clothing. She also likes to be given choices: Do you want an apple or grapes for a snack?

“We want kids to understand that they’re not the victims of their emotions,” says Schafer. emotions come from our preconscious, but they’re not random. “We choose our emotions. The ones we choose will help us to get where we’re going, and propel us toward our goals.” She suggests that parents help kids label their emotions, then show them how to look at their problems differently. So when Rory doesn’t get a straw with her milk and starts to cry, I can just say: “Is this really the worst thing ever? On a scale of one to 10, is this a 10-out-of-10 problem?”

Anderson identifies the dramatic kids in her classroom early on, and has extra one- on-one chats with them to form a bond. She also praises them for appropriate behaviour. “I really try to find the positive, so that they think, ‘I was rewarded for that and I was ignored when I shouted out.’”

The upside of drama queens
Having a sensitive kid isn’t all bad, though. I often say our greatest strengths are also our biggest weaknesses (and vice versa). “[Drama queens and kings are] usually really fun,” says Anderson with a smile. “They’re typically really likeable…. I find [they] are so great when it comes to anything active in the classroom. Whether it’s dramatizing historical events or people, they really go that extra mile because it’s something they get excited about. They want to interact. They are the memorable kids.”

Act II, scene one. (A schoolyard, after hours.) A little girl is swinging from the monkey bars. She accidentally bumps her leg on one of the metal bars, jumps down, starts to cry and pathetically limps toward her mom.

MOTHER: You’re OK. You barely hit the bar.
GIRL (wailing): It hurts!
MOTHER: You’re a tough cookie, honey. You’re fine.
GIRL (clutching her leg, suddenly unable to move): Mama!
MOTHER (seeing another parent glance at her accusingly): Do you need a hug? (hugs her daughter). Let me see that leg. Hmmm…do we need to amputate?
GIRL (starts to laugh): No.
MOTHER: Should we go to the hospital for a bunch of needles?
GIRL (giggles): No!
MOTHER: OK. Well, we can only stay for 10 more minutes. Should we go home now or do you want to play?
GIRL: Play! (And she runs off, limp-free, back to the monkey bars.)

That was Rory and me last month. I keep reminding myself not to engage or react to the drama (meaning, don’t get mad). I also find that getting her to laugh is the quickest way to diffuse the situation. let’s hope I’m learning a little.

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