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Family life: My daughter is so sensitive, how can I help her cope at school?


David Coleman says it can be a real challenge to know when to tell their child about mental illness

David Coleman says it can be a real challenge to know when to tell their child about mental illness

David Coleman says it can be a real challenge to know when to tell their child about mental illness

Appearing assertive is often enough to deter playground taunts

I have three children and the oldest is seven. She is a deep thinker and an extremely sensitive child. She attends a rural primary school and seems very happy going to school each day.

Yet her shyness radiates from her immediately upon meeting her: her head is lowered, her cheeks go pink and she is reluctant to speak.

Despite this, she gets on well with the other children in her class but takes to heart things they do or say to her and tries to make sense of them later.

I'm referring to the usual playground talk, for example: "If you don't play my game I'm not your friend" or "you're not coming to my party" or "you can't stand beside me in the line". Due to her caring and sensitive nature these things hurt her, as she hasn't developed the thick skin to buffer these comments.

The other girls obviously see her as an easy target. Rather than highlight these things to her teacher I'd rather work myself on helping my child cope and building her self-esteem in these social settings. She is very clever and mature for her age and sometimes I think she finds it hard to relate to some children she meets. I try to empathise and not sympathise but having been a shy child myself, I sometimes can't help but feel her hurt. It is very hard sometimes not to take on board the hurts or slights that our children experience. In many ways sympathy with our children's experience is a positive thing, because we do fully understand what they are feeling and that means that we can be very warm and nurturing in our responses to them.

When we sympathise with children they will definitely feel that we are on their side. What they may not be able to get from us is practical help to solve the problem they are facing since we are thrown back into our own past hurt.

And in your situation, perhaps, you are thrown back into your own experience of an inability to respond to the exclusion or meanness of other girls and consequent feelings of inadequacy.

From what you say, it sounds like you found it difficult to respond assertively to teasing and isolation. It may still be a struggle to know what to do even now.

It is admirable that you want to help your daughter build up her resources for coping, but my guess is that you will need to build up your own coping skills and self-esteem in tandem with hers.

The first thing to remember is that shyness, politeness and sensitivity are not negative things. Indeed if everyone was polite and sensitive we would have no bullying, no teasing, and no conflict.

So, help your daughter to focus on these as positive attributes that she has rather than seeing them as negative things that make her vulnerable, or make her a target.

Next it will help her self-esteem to consider what makes her both lovable and capable. So, again, help her to notice all the things she is good at, all the areas where she contributes to your family, or to the class or to her group of friends.

Regularly remind her of the good things about her that you and her dad love. This will always act to balance up or overcome any negative comments made by other girls.

It will help your daughter to learn to stand tall, physically and emotionally. So, when you see her slouch, drop her head and seem reluctant to speak you can encourage her to draw her shoulders back, hold her head up and make eye contact. Even if she doesn't feel confident doing this, the practice of doing it will create a greater confidence for her.

By looking people in the eye (even when she doesn't feel particularly self-assured or assertive) she will give a very strong impression of being assertive.

Appearing assertive is often enough to deter casual teasing or the typical playground taunts that don't reach the level of bullying.

It is much harder, for example, for a girl to tell her that she is not welcome to stand so close or to play a particular game if your daughter is making strong eye contact.

You can also describe to your daughter how some girls will use her responses to work out whether their teasing is having an impact. If they can see that she is upset or hurt then it may encourage them to further taunt or exclude her. Her responses may become like handholds that the other girls can use to grip on and tease more.

If your daughter can let the comments slide off her, without attaching (like having a sheet of ice covering the usual rocky handholds) then the girls won't find purchase and are more likely to give up teasing her.

Having a few assertive responses that are neutral (neither ignoring nor aggressive or provocative) may also give her greater confidence that she at least has something she can say.

So, for some of the examples you gave, responses might be, "If I don't play your game then I can play my own game", or "that is a pity I won't be at your party, I have other friends that I play with", or "I can stand wherever I like, or wherever the teacher puts me".

I know you want to empower your daughter to respond and develop a thicker skin, but if she is regularly and relentlessly getting the kinds of comments that you describe she probably feels quite excluded and quite bullied. If she is consistently being put down or rejected it may be very hard to build up the positive resources to overcome the teasing unless it stops first.

In those kinds of situations it really helps for adults to step in and let the other girls know that their behaviour will not be tolerated and is quite hurtful to others.

So talking to the teacher about what is going on, as well as giving her the coping strategies, might be a valuable extra way to help.

HAVE YOU GOT A PROBLEM FOR DAVID? Email him at: dcoleman@independent.ie

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