Wednesday 7 December 2016

My eight- year old daughter is being excluded by other girls

Ask the expert

Published 07/04/2015 | 02:30

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice

Clinical psychologist David Coleman answers your parenting questions.

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Question: I am concerned about my eight-year-old daughter. She's the eldest of three girls. She has always been very independent in entertaining and amusing herself but she is being excluded from the rest of the girls in her class at playtime and is never invited to anyone's house to play. I have asked some girls over to play and they have come but she's never asked back. She has other interests (music and sport) but, even there, I have often collected her and she's always by herself. Any advice on how to make life a little more bearable for her?

David replies: It is awful to feel left out. It can feel like a physical jolt to the pit of your stomach. We can be hurt by the exclusion itself and our sense that we are missing out. We can also be hurt by the assumption we make that we have done something wrong, or that there is something wrong with us, that others don't like us or don't want to spend time with us.

In dealing with the exclusion that your daughter is suffering there are three issues that you might want to consider. The first relates to her self-esteem and her beliefs about herself based on how these other girls are acting towards her.

The second issue is about what personal skills she has, and uses, to befriend other children. The third issue is what support you, her teachers and her coaches, give her to mix better.

I believe that self-esteem is generated according to how much a person feels capable and lovable. Whatever about your daughter's sense of capability, her sense of lovability is undoubtedly affected by the seemingly continuous rejection by her peers.

This is, definitely, an area that you will need to support her. You and her dad, primarily, need to show her regularly and often that she is loved and accepted unconditionally.

You can do this by being affectionate with her, both physically and verbally. You need to be careful to avoid putting her down and to, instead, remind her of her positive traits that make her a joy to be in company with.

Do also take opportunities to allow her to feel responsible and useful to you and the family.

So, that may be in situations where she helps you or her sisters. It may be that her teacher can also give her "jobs" to do in the class, to raise her status and help her feel useful.

As you describe it, she seems to get left out in most social situations, at school and in extra-curricular activities. It may be that she struggles to know how to befriend other children.

The kind of friendship-building skills she might need are how to make good eye contact, how to take turns in conversations with her peers, how to share and how to act assertively, without being bossy or domineering.

These are all skills that you can teach her. Her school can also support them, through things like small group work with the resource teacher or circle time-type discussions during SPHE lessons in the class.

For example, the "Myself and Others" strand of the SPHE curriculum deals with the issue of communication and bullying at various points throughout the primary years and looks at how we can relate to friends.

However, even if your daughter has the best communication and friendship-building skills, she may be the recipient of some targeted exclusion. Her ability to make friends might be being denied to her by the actions of other children.

The best way to determine this is to go and talk to her teacher in school and also to her teachers and coaches at music and sports to see what they have observed about her peer interactions. Specifically, ask them if they notice her being left out or ignored. Deliberate exclusion is a form of bullying. Her teachers may be aware that there are other children, with strong personalities, who do leave her out. If so, then according to their anti-bullying policies they will have a responsibility to ensure that your daughter is treated respectfully and inclusively.

You can ask them to encourage inclusion and to see if there are opportunities for them to engineer group work or games that make it easier for her to mix.

I am concerned about my eight-year-old daughter. She's the eldest of three girls. She has always been very independent in entertaining and amusing herself but she is being excluded from the rest of the girls in her class at playtime and is never invited to anyone's house to play. I have asked some girls over to play and they have come but she's never asked back. She has other interests (music and sport) but, even there, I have often collected her and she's always by herself. Any advice on how to make life a little more bearable for her?

My 16-year-old daughter isn't eating enough and is now lacking energy and concentration

Question: I am worried that my 16-year-old daughter is not eating enough. She can go for hours without food if she is not happy with what is available at home. She appears to have very little energy, complaining about being tired and cold frequently. Her concentration level is very poor at times. She will eat plenty if we take her for fast food but won't try anything different at home. I have taken her to the doctor and a nutritionist. They both told her to eat more. She agrees to do so but carries on as normal. What can I do to get her to eat more?

David replies: It is very hard to watch our children making bad choices! From what you write, it certainly seems that your daughter is making bad choices about her food intake.

The physical symptoms that you describe do fit with poor levels of nutrition, so you are right to be concerned. Her eating habits do appear to be unhealthy for her.

I wonder if this is a long-standing problem or has it developed more recently? If this reluctance to eat the food you prepare is new, then it is probably more worrying than if she has always been fussy or choosy.

An innocent explanation may be that she genuinely doesn't like the taste or texture of the food she is offered.

If this is the case then you could choose to be flexible and creative with her, engaging her in buying and cooking food that she likes.

The aim is to get her to take more responsibility for her food, including preparing and cooking it. That way, if she doesn't like what is offered to her she knows that it is okay for her to cook herself something different.

Another possible explanation is that she is deliberately restricting her eating to keep her weight down, or because she is dissatisfied with some aspect of her body image.

This seems to me to be the least likely reason since you describe that she happily tucks into take-aways and fast food when she is given the option.

If her reluctance to eat is a relatively new habit, then I think you need to look at anything that might be unsettling or upsetting her. This might be something at school, at home or an issue with her friends.

You may also need to look at your own relationship with her. For example, do you and she fight about her unwillingness to eat?

Do you just ignore her when she doesn't choose to eat the food you have prepared? Do you feel hurt, cross or upset? Does she feel cross or resentful?

It may be that her decision to skip certain meals is her way to protest her dissatisfaction with you, or with some element of her relationship with you. So, her non-eating behaviour is her way to "get at" you.

This might be particularly relevant if food is very important to you.

For example, if you take lots of care about the quality and kind of food you typically prepare, then she may feel that she hurts you, or rejects you, if she rejects the food.

Her non-eating may also be her way of trying to "prove" to you that you can't make her eat certain things. If so, then power and control might be at the heart of her non-eating.

Not eating food as a means to either prove a point or exert power is not uncommon.

It is, however, self-destructive for the child or teenager involved and so it must be responded to.

You do need to try to understand why she chooses not to eat. Is it simple preference about types of food? If so, then you give her more responsibility to choose and prepare her own food.

If, however, it seems to you to be more about the exertion of power, or control, or about trying to upset you and "get back" at you then you might want to consider going for family therapy.

Discussing your daughter's restricted eating with a trained professional may help you to get some insight into why it happens and how you can help.

The organisation Bodywhys is a great starting point for information and support for you as a parent.

You may also get the contact details for psychologists and psychotherapists who specialise in eating issues to guide you.

I am worried that my 16-year-old daughter is not eating enough. She can go for hours without food if she is not happy with what is available at home. She appears to have very little energy, complaining about being tired and cold frequently. Her concentration level is very poor at times. She will eat plenty if we take her for fast food but won't try anything different at home. I have taken her to the doctor and a nutritionist. They both told her to eat more. She agrees to do so but carries on as normal. What can I do to get her to eat more?

dcoleman@independent.ie

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