Thursday 22 March 2018

David Coleman: My 10-year old daughter calls herself stupid and a wimp

David Coleman

David Coleman

We have two daughters, aged seven and 10, our concern is for our oldest girl. She is a quiet, sensitive child, but over the last year (and probably longer) her attitude and outlook has become very negative.

Being fully aware of how young she is, we have talked to her about her feelings in what we hope is an age-appropriate way. We encourage her and let her know how much we love and value her. We felt that maybe the only way she felt she could get our attention was when she was upset and we have tried to change this.

We have made a big effort to spend quality alone time with her. Nothing seems to work; if 10 happy things happen and one wrong, she will concentrate on the one thing that went wrong. She becomes extremely upset if friends say anything to her or leave her out in any way and always starts the conversation off with, "they don't like me ... "

She will describe herself as being stupid, a wimp or no good at anything. Though we are trying not to over-analyse everything, we are concerned that she will carry this negativity with her throughout her life.

Any advice on how we can help her would be greatly appreciated.

David replies:

Your daughter sounds like her self-esteem is at a low level. She seems to have little self-belief. You seem to recognise this in your attempts to encourage her and let her know how much you value her and love her.

What is not as clear is why she feels so badly about herself. The phrases that you say she uses to describe herself, "stupid", "a wimp" and "no good at anything", sound like the kind of judgments that she has heard from other people.

It is rare for children to have an inbuilt, or instinctive, negative view of themselves. More often a negative self-image is a received viewpoint from others. At her age, the most likely sources of that negativity are either her family or her peers. In your daughter's situation it really does seem like it might be her peers who keep putting her down.

It is awful to hear your child upset at their perceived treatment by others and so, consequently, you might just rush in to tell them that they are fine, that they are not stupid or that they are not wimps. Unfortunately, though, they probably won't believe you.

This might be because a child, like your daughter, compares herself to her friends, in school perhaps, and has decided that she is not as good as them at sums, or spellings or reading and so comes to believe that she is "stupid".

Or, her friends might have been insidiously slagging or teasing her for a long time to the point that she believes them more than she believes you.

For this reason it is worth investigating a bit what is happening at school and closer to home. Talk to her teacher about her social connections in the class and yard, as well as about her academic ability, so that you can get a more informed picture of how she is getting on (rather than just her negative view!).

Observe what happens when she is with her peers and perhaps talk to some other parents too.

If she is being picked on then intervene, decisively, to make sure that it stops. Again, it will be her teacher or other parents that will have to support you by talking to the other girls involved.

Adults might need to help the girls to invest in building positive relationships with each other and becoming intolerant of anyone being left out.

Then your task is to focus on helping your daughter to rebuild her self-esteem.

The two key elements of self-esteem, in my opinion, are a sense of lovability (that I am loved and lovable) and a sense of capability (that I am a valuable member of a group who makes important contributions).

Regarding her sense of lovability, it is good that you tell your daughter she is loved. It is more important that you show it by being accepting of her, no matter how she is. Use empathy as much as possible to let her know that you understand how she feels, even if you don't agree with her feelings.

To help with her sense of capability, give her lots of opportunities to contribute, usefully, around the house. Involve her in decision-making. Acknowledge her progress when aiming for goals, not just reaching them.

Treat her mistakes as learning opportunities rather than simply punishing her. Most importantly, encourage her to self-evaluate positively rather than just to accept the valuations of others.

For example, it is more powerful to say to her "you must be so proud of yourself and all the work you did on that project" than to say "I am proud of all the work you did on that project."

This shift will make a big difference in helping her to become more positive than negative, and to rely on her own sense of how well she is doing rather than the evaluation of others (especially as this has probably been quite negative from her peers so far).

Focusing relentlessly on the positive things in her life, by commenting on them, recording them and reminding her of them, will also help to challenge her negativity. You must remember that a negative outlook is not her norm; it is something that has developed over the last year.

This means that you can help her to regain a more positive outlook, especially once she feels more secure amongst her friends.

Self-esteem can be rebuilt, and if you work on this with her, at the same time as ensuring that her friendships are mostly positive and supportive, I think she will feel happier in time.

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