Saturday 23 September 2017

My daughter gets extremely upset whenever I leave the room

What sort of message are we sending out when we ignore a child’s tearful pleas
What sort of message are we sending out when we ignore a child’s tearful pleas
David Coleman

David Coleman

I'M WONDERING if there's something I can do to help my little girl. She will be three next month.

She is a very happy little soul. She has great language skills and is very sociable but she's also very, very clingy to me. She just wants to be near me and will get quite hysterical if I leave a room without her.

One afternoon, a couple of months ago, I had arrived in from work and needed to get something from my car. My daughter was resting on the sofa with our older son watching some TV.

I slipped out to my car, deliberately closing the front door behind me because I was worried that if I was rooting around in my car she might slip out and I wouldn't notice her.

I got what I needed and then got talking to my neighbour at our front doors. I was outside about five minutes or so but when I opened my door and entered the hallway I could hear my daughter crying.

I found her upstairs, wandering about really upset, calling my name and looking for me.

I know it was awful of me to leave her like that; I totally got distracted and didn't even think that she'd be looking for me.

Maybe I'm fixating on that incident and it has nothing to do with the way she is now. But maybe it has. So is there something I can do to 'fix' it?

David replies:

ON BALANCE, I'd say that the incident where your daughter got distressed, looking for you and not being able to find you, probably has a lot to do with her current clinginess. I think she experienced it as a real trauma.

However, these things do happen in families. We all make mistakes and there is little benefit in you holding on to guilt or recrimination. It is okay to forgive yourself, especially as you are repairing any stress she may have felt.

Let's think about it from her perspective. She was feeling very chilled-out watching TV with her brother. For whatever reason, she took a notion to call you or check on you and couldn't find you.

When she couldn't find you quickly, she probably got a small bit anxious. The longer she searched without finding you, the more her panic probably increased. For her, five minutes of searching probably felt like an eternity.

During that time I imagine she became totally overwhelmed by the intensity of the feeling. I'd say it took her quite a while to calm down when you did eventually find her upstairs.

To use an analogy, the experience may have been akin to her having a "coping fuse" that burned through, or wore away, during her panic when she couldn't find you.

Now, without the benefit of that "coping fuse", she re-experiences the full strength of that panic immediately that she notices you are not around. This is because she cannot regulate the intensity of her anxiety with any of the usual coping strategies that young children may have.

To help her now, I think you should remind her of that afternoon when you were outside but with the door closed. Talk again about the fright she got and about how upset she seemed to be that she couldn't find you.

It may seem like it is just "feeding in" to her fears but actually it is very important that she has lots of opportunities to feel those feelings again and link them to the actual experience of searching for you and not finding you.

Empathising with her feelings about the incident, like this, will help her to process and regulate those fears and anxieties.

Once you empathise with her about how scary that afternoon was, you can also remind her that she was doing such a good job of looking for you, even though she couldn't find you.

This reminds her of the practical coping skills that she has used and will reinforce the idea of taking a "good look" for someone before you get too worried about not being able to see them.

Practically, you can also make sure to give her some warning of when you are going to leave a room.

Tell her where you are going and how long you'll be. Let her come too if possible. Then be sure to stick to your plan to help her rebuild her trust in your reliability.

As she seems more comfortable with small absences from you, you can reinforce how well she seems to be able to deal with her worries and how sensible she is that she comes to look for you before getting hysterical.

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