Biggest Mistakes Parents Make, Part 2: Carissa
Dr. Phil gives advice to parents of a 9-year-old girl who back talks and argues, and lacks empathy for others.

Monica says her 9-year-old daughter Carissa "earns great grades in school, but at home with us, she's rude, competitive and argumentative. I'll ask her to do something and she'll stomp her feet. She doesn't want to do it, and it becomes a big argument. She'll argue just for the sake of arguing, even if she knows she's wrong, she'll keep arguing just because it's fun."

Frank says he is concerned that Carissa shows no remorse, especially "when she hurts the dog, when she yells at me or argues with her mother. I don't want her behavior to carry over into her adulthood. I just want her to be a likeable person."

Dr. Phil first addresses Frank's concern about Carissa's lack of remorse. "You said that out of the blue she'll inflict pain on the dog. She'll grab the dog's ears and yank them hard enough so it hurts. And she'll come up and knee you in the groin and laugh. And Monica, you had an example where you really smashed your toe, and she just laughed and laughed. What do you think is going on?"

Frank says he believes it's a maturity issue. "She acts like she's stuck in a 6-year-old emotional mentality," he says. "I understand the intellect is there, but she doesn't seem to be getting past 6 years old emotionally."

"Let me be more specific about this," says Dr. Phil. "Obviously, Carissa has a delightful side, and can be charismatic in fact. But the truth is, this girl has failed to develop any skills of empathy.

"This is something that generally occurs between 5 and 7 years of age, and it happens a little later in females than in males, which is unusual because females are usually more feeling and expressive than males.

"But here's what's going on. There's something called 'conservation,' which has to do with the ability to take the other person's viewpoint. And what I'm saying is, Carissa doesn't have the ability to say, 'If I'm inflicting pain on the dog, then let me go around on the other side and be the dog, and I see the dog is hurting.' She has not developed that ability at this point, and that's the problem. The question becomes why do you think you have a child that has not developed empathy?"

Monica answers, "I think it's a mixture of two things. One, I think that it is the immaturity level, but also I think a lot of it is control. I think Carissa enjoys the control. She can hurt the dog because she wants to hurt the dog."

Frank adds, "I also think it's an only child issue as well. She doesn't have a sibling to work through this with. She only has us and she plays us on a daily basis."

Dr. Phil asks, "Would you like a suggestion on what I would add to that? I believe that both of you are afraid of this child. Frank, you're afraid if you don't stay right on top of her, she's going to really be bad. And Monica, you're afraid if you confront her, there's going to be this terrible rebellion. Does that seem to you guys like you don't have an integrated plan and approach to raising this child? You're afraid you have to stay on her like a duck on a June bug, and you're afraid if you do, you've got big problems. It's like she's living with Sybil!"

"This is a power struggle and it takes two to tango, and she's winning," says Dr. Phil. "Let me tell you why you're losing. The reason I say you're losing is, the goal of disciplining a child is for them to internalize the values you teach them and self-police. If a child isn't doing what you want them to do, you say, 'Here's what you're doing wrong. You can't do this. There are consequences for doing this.' What you're hoping is as they mature, they will say it to themselves. And what you're telling me is that she is showing an inability to learn and adapt because you're continuing the constant confrontation. You're saying 'I'm not losing because I'm not giving in.' But you're losing because you're not achieving the internalization. The confrontation shouldn't be ongoing forever. It should be getting better."
Dr. Phil continues, "Let me tell you how I think you can help her develop empathy and get her to internalize. You have to meet kids at the level they're at. In this case, you have a very intellectual daughter. She reads well and writes well. Use those skills to develop her empathy. One of the things you can require her to do is that she sit down and write a story about another person's point of view. 'I laughed at my mom when she hurt her foot. I need to write a story about how that made my mom feel when I laughed at her pain.' You can give her things to start with, give her topical sentences for each paragraph. 'I'm a dog laying warm in the sun next to Carissa, and all of a sudden there's this pain in my head....' She has to finish the sentence. Put her in the position of having to crystallize her thoughts on paper. Meet her where she is. This is what she does well. Use that to force her to take other people's positions."