Tuesday 27 September 2016

My pubescent daughter is very anxious. Any idea why?

Published 01/12/2015 | 02:30

David Coleman
David Coleman

The clinical psychologist give advice on how to deal with a child who appears to be anxious and a five-year old who has become very defiant following recent upheaval.

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Question: My pubescent daughter is struggling with high levels of anxiety. She has always been a little bit anxious and sensitive but it has really gotten worse recently. She is in constant fear that family members are going to die or some disaster will befall them. She has not experienced a death in the family nor has she undergone any traumatic experience. Even though her anxiety is groundless, her distress is genuine. I am finding it hard to find ways to reassure her. I am not sure why she is this way, nor do I know what to do to help her?

David replies: You don't mention how old your daughter is, just that she is pubescent. She could be, therefore, anywhere between about 10 and 14 years of age. Even though puberty itself may be significant in terms of the anxiety that has spiked in recent months, her age is important too, as it might be associated with significant changes, like going to secondary school.

Without this knowledge, however, I'll focus on the possible impact of the hormonal changes themselves. They alone could be enough to destabilise her emotional regulation. In other words, the flood of hormones could be enough to throw her off-kilter.

With the onset of puberty, your daughter may be feeling differently about friends, about boys and about her relationship with you and her dad. Any or all of which could be increasing feelings of insecurity generally.

She may be feeling more overtly sexual, or be confused or unsure about the power of her sexual feelings. There is lots of research that shows that early onset of puberty for girls can be harder, for example, than early onset of puberty for boys.

If she is young, therefore, she may feel more out of place, or out of synch with her friends and may be attracting a different reaction from boys in her class, or even older boys.

The physical changes to her body may also feel unpredictable and be anxiety provoking for that reason.

As her body changes in puberty, it may also lead her to reconsider her body image, or to throw a spotlight on her satisfaction or her dissatisfaction with her body.

The onset of puberty is also quite a defined mark of a child's growth and development, moving them forward out of childhood and into adolescence. Lots of children, at times of key and irreversible development, can become upset and anxious about moving on, sometimes feeling great distress at the "loss" of some aspect of their childhood.

Your observations of your own daughter may well typify this experience of many children. It's possible your daughter may be feeling insecure about some or all of the possible impacts of puberty that I have listed above.

She could be expressing that insecurity in a concrete way; by being afraid of something bad happening to you or other members of her family.

Indeed, so many of the potential issues associated with puberty may be quite difficult for her to pinpoint, identify for herself or even explain.

At a subconscious level, then, it be more acceptable or easier for her to "attach" the anxiety to a specific fear, like something bad happening to someone close.

To help her, I think you need to talk more with her about puberty and what it means for her. Don't focus only on the physical impact of it, but perhaps using my observations as a guide, open up conversations with her about the possible emotional impact of it too. Acknowledge that puberty can be anxiety provoking.

You can also acknowledge the anxiety she does admit to, about feeling insecure, and let her know that you can understand it. Reassurance, in the face of anxiety, tends to be more successful if the person we are reassuring knows that we fully understand the extent of their worry.

Your daughter may need to feel that you "get it" in regard to how worried she feels, before she can let herself be reassured by the unlikelihood of something bad happening to your family.

Mostly, though, I'd hope you find that when you start to put words on, and normalise, some of the experiences or feelings that she has, about puberty specifically, that it could help to ease her anxiety generally.

My five-year-old has become dominant and defiant. Is it a reaction to all the change she's encountered?

Question: My mother died very suddenly last year and later in the year we moved from Galway to Dublin. At the same time my husband and I changed jobs and moved house twice. This meant changing school and childcare for our five-year-old daughter. She excels, academically, in school; however, her behaviour there varies from very well-behaved, to acting very dominantly and defiantly. We see similar behaviour at home. Her defiance is exhausting. We would appreciate any advice that you could propose in order to address this.

David replies: Your daughter may be experiencing significant anxiety about the multiple changes and stresses in your family's life. However, rather than expressing that anxiety directly, she may be showing it to you and her teacher in her disruptive behaviour.

If you think about it, she could have experienced all of the changes as changes that were "foisted" upon her. In other words, she had little say, or little control, in how these changes were applied to her.

Change always brings unpredictability and unpredictability is often associated with anxiety, as we worry about what might happen next. Usually, this kind of anxiety will fade or diminish as things become more settled, stable and predictable.

We all, also, have a tendency to "act out" or display our feelings. Sometimes we do that directly (feeling cross and acting angrily for example) and sometimes we do it indirectly (feeling anxious and acting angrily for example).

One way or another, however, our behaviour (especially misbehaviour or challenging behaviour) is often an indication of strong, intense emotions under the surface.

Angry or challenging behaviour is often the outcome of mixed, but intense emotions. I often think of it like mixing the primary colours of paint together. If you mix red, yellow and blue together you typically get a muddy brown or black.

Similarly, if you mix strong feelings like sadness, anxiety, frustration, disappointment and so on, together, you often create anger. Expressing strong feelings as anger may often suit, since anger is an intense emotion and so may allow us to express the intensity of our feeling generally.

Anger may also be one of the easier emotions to access. So, it can be hard to show disappointment, for example, but we all know (even young children) how to show anger.

Think too about the particular form of your daughter's misbehaviour. She is, according to your description, showing a lot of defiance and dominance. This makes real sense to me, as a response to her likely experience of feeling out-of-control in relation to the life events that have occurred.

It may be that the more external events that happen outside of her control, bringing stress or distress, the more she feels she needs to try to exert control within the realms of her small sphere of influence.

So, she may try to dominate friends, teachers, siblings and you, to give her a greater sense of control or power, because she feels powerless to prevent the bigger events from disrupting her life.

To help her, then, I'd suggest that you work hard to stabilise things in her life as much as possible. Focus on building regular, reliable and predictable routines in her life. Give her lots of notice of changes that need to occur.

Talk with her about the impact of the changes, on all the family, in terms of stress, worry, unpredictability and so on. Allow her to both connect to, and express, any of those kinds of feelings that may be present.

Be patient with her defiance. Try to avoid increasing the levels of control that you might feel like exerting on her. For example, try to correct her behaviour rather than punish her. Be warm and understanding (but firm) if she misbehaves and then guide and direct her to more appropriate behaviour.

I do think, however, that you will find that her defiant behaviour will reduce, as her world becomes more stable.

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