12/15/2014 06:30 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

My Cousin Calls Her Daughter 'Dummy' and 'Stupid'!

I have a cousin whose child is five years old. Her mother can be verbally harsh at times, saying things like, "You're a monster. Stop it dummy. Are you stupid?" This has caused the little girl to lash out at adults verbally and physically. I'm not sure how to deal with it and I also feel bad, because I understand why she is lashing out. What do I do?

It is terribly awkward to deal with a child's upsetting behavior without stepping on the toes of her parent. Your situation is even more challenging because you wisely understand that this little one is both mimicking her mother and acting out her hurt. Here are my thoughts:

Create the most loving connection possible with your 5-year-old cousin. Children who are ridiculed and shamed end up believing that there is something defective about them -- something that justifies their ill treatment. Children who grow up having at least one healthy attachment can be spared adolescent detours into drug or alcohol abuse, promiscuity or academic indifference. Make it clear to your little cousin that you see her gifts, sweetness, intelligence and lovability. On a side note, this will make it harder for her to mistreat you. (We tend to cooperate with those people who we sense like us and enjoy being around them.)

Consider the back story. Parents don't suddenly acquire a desire to speak in a humiliating way to their children; they are almost always repeating with their kids the treatment that they received from their own parents. Thinking about your cousin's behavior in the context of how she was raised (which you may know more about, since you are related) might help you create an inroad for a conversation that lets her feel understood and supported rather than criticized and judged.

Acknowledge the child's frustration. Tantrums are a child's best and loudest way of announcing that she is overwhelmed by feelings of frustration. Those who are familiar with my work know that I talk about something called Act I Parenting, which, among other things, allows children to offload unmanageable emotions by helping them feel validated and heard. "It looks like you're really mad about not getting to go to the park. You had your heart set on that. It's so hard when you wanted to go play on the swings and your mom and I made other plans." Avoid explaining why she can't have what she wants until she's settled down.

Acknowledge her mother's frustration and offer support. "Cousin Sue, I know it's hard taking care of little Sara, especially when she gets wound up over things so quickly. And wow, that girl can holler! I can see where that would get on your nerves. Is there any way I can help?" Most parents feel tremendous guilt and shame when they lash out at their children, whether or not they admit it. By showing kindness and avoiding judging your cousin, you may help her feel safe to offload her own frustrations. The truth is that she may be experiencing stress in her marriage, work or other life situations and simply dumping her anger onto her daughter.

I urge you to encourage your cousin to learn more about what is fueling the hurtful behavior she is directing onto her daughter. Whether it is a good therapist, a parenting book or class, or simply the kind ear of a caring friend -- or cousin! -- when she acquires tools to help her develop a healthier relationship with her daughter, the shaming and ridicule will stop.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

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