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Family Life: My child's a born worrier who is being targeted by bullies

I often hear friends and family say jokingly that my nine-year-old daughter is a born worrier, which she is. In fact, they have no idea how over-anxious she can be. She can build herself into such a state over things that are not really of huge importance. No amount of hugs, reassurance or explaining seems to work.

She will become hysterical and inconsolable for up to an hour or more, by which time she is absolutely exhausted and has to lie down as she gets cramps in her tummy. How can I help her to manage these feelings so they do not overwhelm her? Also, since she went back to school this year two girls in her class have been telling her how ugly she is. She is not ugly; she is very tall for her age, pretty and is good at sports and school. It took her a while to confide in me about this and she has asked me not to say anything. I do not want to break her trust, but I do not want her to be made feel bad about herself by these cruel comments. She says she wants to sort it out herself. I am very concerned about all of this as she is only nine and I worry that she will find life ahead very difficult.

Part of your daughter's nervousness and anxiety, I would imagine, comes from her own temperament. Part of it may have been picked up from you, her parents. A natural tendency to worry, coupled with a sense that the world is an unpredictable or uncontrollable place, can easily lead to the level of anxious distress that you describe.

It seems to me, however, that at the heart of your daughter's anxiety and her susceptibility to being targeted for bullying is low self-esteem. She may feel unlovable or incapable or both. From how you talk about her it is possible she feels like she is not a very capable person.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the kind of taunting that she is experiencing is also directed at minimising her good feelings about herself. Unfortunately for your daughter, she is more likely to believe what she is being told by her tormentors because she already feels bad about herself.

The approach I suggest that you take with her is to focus on building up her self-esteem, specifically her sense of being capable. Depending on the frequency and intensity of the bullying, she may indeed (as she wants) be able to respond to it on her own, especially if her self-esteem is greater.

However, it is more likely that she won't be able to resolve the bullying alone, and it may be too much to expect this of her. So, if after a short period of time she hasn't sorted it out alone, then get involved more actively. Don't sit back and hope it will all go away or take no action in case she feels like you have broken her trust.

She has already trusted you with the information about the bullying but you won't be breaking that trust by responding responsibly to help her to resolve it, either independently or with support.

Your support might be to inform the teachers or other parents and get them all actively involved to address the particular taunting to ensure that it stops.

It is not a good idea, therefore, to promise that you won't tell anyone else about what is happening as you could end up breaking your word when you have to talk to the teachers and/or other parents.

To build her self-esteem, especially her sense of capability, she needs to be able to both see and accept her strengths and achievements. Sometimes we have to work hard to persuade children of how able they actually are.

Then it is important to give her opportunities to contribute, meaningfully, to the family. Allow her to take responsibility for tasks, chores and surprises in the house or, if possible, outside it as well. You could certainly speak to the teacher about her taking on some leadership roles in the class, for example.

Encourage your daughter to make decisions, or at the very least to be involved in the decisions that affect her. Let her opinion be seen to be heard and valued, even if it can't be acted upon.

Your daughter will also really benefit from help to see the learning that can come of mistakes that she makes rather than feeling her mistakes are failures. At present it sounds like she is so fearful of making mistakes that she doesn't even try things.

Teach her strategies to reduce her anxiety like deep breathing, or other forms of relaxation, so that she can get to the point where she is attempting things. Then always acknowledge the good effort that she will put in, even if the outcome is not exactly what she or you expected or hoped for.

Centrally, however, she needs you and her dad to believe in her and to believe that she is capable and lovable and that she will cope, both with her worries and the bullying.

Irish Independent