THE RISE OF MINI DIVA SYNDROME
In a world where we’re encouraging our children to aim high, are we creating a generation who don’t care about others enough? Gail Shortland investigates
‘When children see adults behaving like divas, they internalise it and begin to use it to achieve success’
As the photographer positioned his camera to start the fashion shoot, eight-year-old Jessica pouted and turned her back to the lens. Her mum, Sarah, rushed forward to see what the problem was. Usually when Jessica got the chance to model through Sarah’s PR work she enjoyed every moment, posing for the camera like a professional. But this time she was one of five children in a group shot and she wasn’t happy. “I don’t want my picture taken with her,” she snapped, pointing to the girl standing beside her. “She shouldn’t be here, she’s ugly.”
Mortified, Sarah, 33, tried everything she could think of – flattery, bribery and then angry whispers – to persuade her youngest daughter to take part, but Jessica refused to be coaxed.
“Jessica acted like such a diva and I was so embarrassed,” Sarah recalls. “She was so jealous that she wasn’t getting all the attention. But then when the commotion was over, she stepped out for her solo shot and totally nailed it.
“Afterwards, I realised I actually admire her. She knows she’s beautiful and won’t compromise. Jessica might annoy people and lose a few friends along the way, but it’s diva personalities like hers that become superstars so maybe it’s a good thing?”
Jessica is just one of many children who are taking advantage of the plentiful opportunities the UAE has to offer. Families resident here have more money to spend on their children, they’re in private education and sampling the finer things in life at a younger age.
While there are clear advantages, on the downside it also means we’re giving our kids higher expectations. They’re competing with friends for the latest fashions, must-have toys and extravagant birthday parties.
The result is Mini Diva Syndrome – high-maintenance children who demand to get what they want, when they want and throw almighty tantrums when they don’t.
Dr Rose Logan is a clinical psychologist at Dubai’s The LightHouse Arabia clinic (www. lighthousearabia.com), and has witnessed the rise of mini divas. “You can see this type of behaviour everywhere you go and almost anywhere in the world,” Dr Logan says. “Society, modern parenting, and culture can create a perfect storm where young children are encouraged to strive for and want material wealth and success, with very few checks on their behaviour.”
Dr Logan says that Dubai, like most big cities, encourages us to crave more possessions, better cars, a bigger house, more holidays – and children are growing up with the same pressure to be better than everyone else.
“When children see adults with such aspirations behaving like divas, they internalise it and begin to use it to achieve what they see to be success or popularity.”
Maryam Ensan is a fashion and lifestyle blogger (www. stylemejournal.com) who is out most evenings and weekends covering fashion events in Dubai.
“Do I see mini divas at events? Definitely,” Maryam says. “I see so many nine to 12-year-old girls at kids’ fashion events, accompanying their mothers. It’s like a parade sometimes; girls with perfectly done hair, wearing the latest trends, with the attitude of ‘I’m beautiful, no matter what you say.’ They’re constantly taking selfies with models or celebrities to post on Instagram.”
Maryam says that young children here are exposed to lots of role models and events where diva behaviour is acceptable and even encouraged. If stars don’t get enough attention, they just leave. Rather than being frowned upon, it makes them even more desirable. “But it’s one thing to be in the spotlight like Justin Bieber or Selena Gomez, for example, and make demands because they are actual superstars, but completely different for a regular kid.” Maryam says. “Believe me, not all divas are positive role models.”
Dr Vanessa Bokanowski, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist at the Wellbeing Medical Centre in Jumeirah (www.
If children think they can have everything easily, life will be a constant source of disappointment
wellbeingmedicalcentre.com) says that all children have the tendency to be ‘little divas’ because defying authority is their way of discovering wrong from right. “Small children don’t naturally have limits; this comes with education and with confrontation with others, mainly parents,” explains Dr Bokanowski.
The significant age is around two when they reach the ‘no’ stage. “This age is crucial to predict and prevent the diva behaviour,” she says. “It’s the time when children are discovering what can or can’t be done, and parents must make their children understand what is and isn’t acceptable. A child will slowly understand that some behaviour is wrong because they’re not alone in the world – they have to integrate into the social and cultural values of life.”
Dr Bokanowski says that some parents, especially in the UAE, find it difficult to give their children limits and this can be down to their own upbringing. “Some parents have had very strict childhoods and they don’t want their kids to experience the same,’’ she says.
“Some of them had too-permissive parents, and they are then unable to teach their kids safe limits. Or they think that by saying ‘no’, they will lose the love of their children – they just need to understand that, of course, this won’t happen.
“If children think that they can become anyone and have everything without putting in any effort, life will be a constant source of disappointment. Kids have the right to dream but it’s important to control their dreams by bringing them back to reality.”
Jessica’s mum doesn’t agree. Even though her daughter’s diva behaviour was disruptive at the time, she is convinced Jessica will grow up to be a successful adult because she isn’t afraid to go after what she wants. She didn’t punish her daughter for her behaviour – in fact she promised Jessica that next time she wouldn’t have to share the limelight.
So why is it a problem to allow our children to be divas?
“Children without limits will develop behavioural problems,” Dr Bokanowski warns. “They have to experience frustration to become responsible adults and understand consequences. If they don’t, they could develop a strong feeling of insecurity that they’ll carry their whole life. A world without rules can feel very unsafe.”
Dr Bokanowski warns that a child without limits could grow up to lack empathy because that only comes from learning that our behaviour affects others. “Without empathy, they’ll meet tremendous problems in their relationships, as they will try to threaten others to obtain what they want,” she says.
There is a big difference between being assertive and being a diva, Dr Logan explains. “When someone is assertive they are communicating in a way that meets their own needs, but also considers the needs of others,” she says. “Making demands like a diva is generally at the expense of others and certainly does not take other people’s feelings into consideration.
“All children should be able to have their needs met but being a diva indicates poor communication skills and an inflated sense of selfimportance that ultimately might make people dislike or resent them.”
Parenting expert Sue Atkins (www. sueatkinsparentingcoach.com) agrees that diva behaviour in children could set them on a path to a difficult and frustrating adulthood.
“All children have different personalities and the ability to show diva behaviour, but behind it all, families need to instil core values – a framework for living,’’ Sue explains. “As a parent, you need to decide what kind of adults you want your children to become and make sure they grow up with those values.”
Sue says that allowing your children to continue being divas will lead to problems in the future. Behaviour that might seem amusing, or be dismissed as just overconfidence now, will become a lot harder to deal with when your kids are teenagers or adults in the real world, being taken down a peg or two because they don’t consider others. Setting limits is a careful balancing act.
“I know it might sound silly but imagine your child is a sheep in a field,” Sue explains. “If you have a fence around them that’s too tight, they’ll push against it with all their might and eventually burst out of it with frustration. If there isn’t a fence at all, they feel vulnerable and unsafe. You need a fence with enough room to move, that you can make bigger as they grow.”
But what if we’re being unfair on our kids and it isn’t mini-diva syndrome at all? Dr Delia Fayyad a specialist paediatrician at the Wellbeing Medical Centre, says it’s important to understand why your children are having tantrums – often it might not be down to a divalike attitude.
“I’ve seen so many little kids in Dubai shopping malls, late at night crying and throwing tantrums,” Dr Delia says. “Sometimes they demand something and parents just buy it for them. The reality is, they’re tired and struggling to understand and control their emotions. It’s a parent’s responsibility to know their child, know how much stimulation they can take – and when to go home.”
Dr Delia says parents should be more tolerant of frustrated children. Parents need to learn how to avoid these situations or find ways to manage them. “When young children throw tantrums, whether it’s because they’re tired or because they’re angry
at not getting what they want, parents should act the same: let them cool off, give reassurance – but don’t give in.”
Dr Katrin Bain, a feel-good parenting expert and writer (www. katrinbain.co.uk), agrees that you shouldn’t allow your decisions to be influenced by your children’s behaviour. “Diva behaviour in children is a combination of emotional insecurity and learned behaviour,” Dr Katrin explains. “Children are generally not good at waiting to get something they want. However, researchers at Rochester University, UK have found that if children have people around them they can trust, they are much more likely to wait to get something.”
Dr Katrin believes parents can support their children in developing this trust by attending to children’s needs and by keeping their promises – such as making sure the child gets their turn after waiting.
“It is important to distinguish between children’s needs and wants,” she says. “I believe that children’s needs should be responded to fully and as soon as possible. But for children’s wants, parents should only respond when it feels right. A tantrum is your child’s reaction to the emotions of frustration, anger or sadness. Instead of reacting to the behaviour, help your child to process these big feelings and find alternative ways of coping with them in the future.”
When it comes to diva role models, there are plenty for children to look up to and Dr Logan is concerned that this behaviour from Hollywood is often described in a flippant or even positive manner. “This sends out a message to children that being a diva is a good thing – and the behaviour is synonymous with fame, wealth, and popularity,” Dr Logan says. “Even toys and clothes are branded with the word ‘diva’, which further promotes the characteristic in a positive light.”
But Dr Logan says that no matter where the behaviour originated, it can be managed and prevented by everyone who ‘parents’ a child, whether it’s parents, step-parents, grand-parents, or nannies. “When children are allowed to get away with things early on in life, they learn a pattern of behaviour that they’ll go on to use later on in life,” explains Dr Logan. “For example, if you say ‘no’ to your child in the sweet shop but when they start to whine or shout, you give in and say ‘yes’, you teach your child that they only need to stamp their feet and shout to get what they want. Very soon that technique will be used with any authority figure they come across.
Leila Esmail, head of agency at Dubai-based model and talent agency Bareface, insists her child models are extremely well behaved and believes the experience teaches them important life skills. “It’s rare to see a child throwing a tantrum during a casting… and if they do, it’s usually down to discomfort rather than attitude,” insists Leila. “We always try to make the kids as comfortable as possible so they can behave naturally and, actually, the world of child modelling teaches kids to be disciplined; to listen well and be patient.”
But elsewhere fashion photographers are feeling the impact of little models with big attitudes. Martin* takes photos for high-end children’s clothing catalogues in London, and finds the diva behaviour is increasingly becoming part of his working day. “Just last week, I had an eight-year-old who refused to wear a coat because she didn’t like the colour purple, and she raised the roof with her tantrum,” Martin reveals. “We only had the location for two hours so we knew if she stood her ground, we’d just have to give in – and we did. We dressed her in clothes she preferred and hurried through the final shots.”
When Martin suggested to his client afterwards that he’ll not use the model again, the client agreed that she was difficult but had a ‘perfect look’ and he’d just have to work round it. “I’ve heard she’s lined up to do some TV adverts so clearly her behaviour doesn’t put people off.”
On another occasion Martin had to deal with a 10-year-old girl who insisted on having her face photographed from a certain angle. “She told me she wanted her best side and that she’d got the idea from her idol, the diva pop star Ariana Grande. I was speechless! But what could I say?”
As for Sarah’s dream of Jessica being the next big thing, parenting expert Sue has some useful advice. “It’s wonderful to empower your children to be ambitious, confident, focused and determined,” Sue insists. “But at the same time, those qualities should also go hand in hand with compassion, empathy and kindness. You can be successful as well as considerate of others. It’s far more fulfilling to be both!”
Children without limits could develop behavioural problems
Experts warn that behaviour that seems amusing now, could become a lot harder to deal with later