Dear David Coleman: I'm terrified because my three-year-old daughter bites or hits herself if I give out to her ... please help
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. I have a lovely three-year-old girl who is so gentle and kind. However, on the very rare occasion that I have given out to her for doing something, she has reacted by hitting or biting herself, while looking at me. This self-harm is causing her quite a bit of pain while she is doing it. I tell her to stop and she does. If she gets admonished and doesn't hit or bite herself, she will respond with deep, unhappy crying with tears until I cuddle her. I am terrified that this is the beginning of behaviour that might stay with her for life.
David replies: It sounds like your daughter has a lovely warm temperament that, most of the time, leads to really positive interactions with you and others. If so, she has probably got quite a strong sense that the world is a good and positive place.
It may come, then, as a real shock to her when people are not positive towards her but rather are cross, perhaps angry, and certainly disapproving. It may be that in these moments she experiences a form of panic.
The anxiety that she might feel is less likely to do with the misbehaviour and a fear of being in trouble, but rather it might be associated with a fear of rejection.
As I mentioned, she may be so used to being in the glow of your positive approval that any shift from that might just set her on edge. She may misjudge your tone of voice and interpret it that she herself is bad for whatever she did and that you, in some way, are disapproving of her and are rejecting her.
In her heightened emotional state, it seems that she turns to hitting or biting herself. It may also be that when does this, she experiences how concerned about her you become and she may even feel that you become softer or more caring towards her.
Psychologists will often describe an unintended positive outcome from a given behaviour as a 'secondary gain'. So, even though the biting may hurt her, it might have the secondary gain of softening your attitude to her and regaining what she perceives to be a more caring response from you.
The deep unhappy sobbing, which is her alternative response to being corrected, may be another unconscious attempt to win back your care and concern, rather than your crossness.
You have found that she can be distracted away from doing it and will respond to your direction to stop. She also stops if she is cuddled. Perhaps, hearing you speak with her - in a warmer tone maybe - allows her to click back out of the anxiety and to realise that you are not, in fact, pushing her away, or that the crossness has passed and she has returned to your approval?
Of course, as a child, she will make lots of mistakes and will misbehave at times and so it is important that you still feel free to correct that misbehaviour. It is okay to give out to her if it is warranted!
However, I think if you couch your correction of her in an empathetic way, it will help her to realise that you are just focusing on the need for her to behave differently.
To use an example, let's say that she has just grabbed a toy off another child. Your correction of her behaviour might go something like this: "No grabbing! We must all take turns and it is not your turn. Your friend is having her turn." You will then, probably, return the toy to the other child, and that is the point at which your daughter may show her distress.
You might then say, "You seem really upset that I gave out to you. I don't think you like it when I seem cross about something you did. Even if I am cross about grabbing, I still love you." This begins to help her differentiate between doing something bad and feeling like a bad child.
Then, as you do, use distraction to move her on to something new, making it clear that you have forgiven and forgotten the misbehaviour and that the incident is now finished with.
I do think that, in time and with this approach, she will learn to accept your correction of her misbehaviour without panicking that she has, in some way, destroyed her relationship with you.
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