Life Parenting

Monday 23 September 2019

Dear David Coleman: My daughter has changed drastically since going back to school

Abdominal discomfort is a very common complaint, particularly in children
Abdominal discomfort is a very common complaint, particularly in children

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My eight-year-old daughter has always been the happiest of happy kids. However, since starting into second class this year, her behaviour and her demeanour have changed a lot: she cries when we get to the school gates and the same with extra-curricular activities like GAA. She also complains of a tummy pain, but the GP says nothing is wrong physically. We have asked her if anything bothers her, but she just says "no". How could we know if there is something causing her to be crying, worrying and upset? We are worried about her.

David replies: It is almost as distressing for parents to witness their child upset, as it can be for their child to be upset. As you describe, the change in your daughter from a very happy-go-lucky child who seems upset going to school and is experiencing tummy pains, is very worrying.

The change in her demeanour and her behaviour seems very sudden and very dramatic. You can also track the changes back to the start of school this year. The fact that the change has only occurred since she went into second class is unlikely to be a coincidence. I would guess that the two things are connected in some way.

You have already asked her about school and whether anything is bothering her. She denies that anything is wrong. However, despite her denial, I still think that it is highly likely that there is something about her school experience so far this year that is distressing her.

When asked a question, there is a social expectation that children will give an answer. This puts them under pressure. If the truthful answer is something they fear their parents won't approve of, or may be disappointed by, or distressed by, or might be critical of, then they may be motivated to avoid answering or to lie.

I wonder if whatever is upsetting your daughter is so upsetting, or frightening for her, that she just doesn't feel able to tell you, either to protect herself or you?

If this is the case, then asking her questions is unlikely to help. You might want to try making empathy statements to her about what you could guess might be the issue, instead. Here are just a few things that I could imagine may distress her.

She is frightened of her teacher? The workload in second class is overwhelming her? A best friend has dumped her? She is being bullied and has been threatened to say nothing? She heard about sex and the facts of life and is very disturbed about it? Someone told her something about Santa Claus? She said or did something embarrassing in class? She feels unlikeable or rejected because of something someone said or did?

Any of these may be relevant, or none. Once you start thinking, yourselves, about her, about her classmates, about her teacher, or the structure and routine of school you may be able to come up with some other hypotheses about why she seems so distressed. Talking to her teacher might also help you get some insight.

By proposing these kinds of possibly distressing scenarios to her you make it easier for her to, perhaps, endorse anything that is actually relevant for her. Because you say it out loud she doesn't have to. Because you have guessed it, she doesn't have to be the one to risk betraying anyone.

Because you say it, she also knows that this is something that you can tolerate being said! So, for example, if it was something embarrassing for her, like something she now knows about sex, then it is less frightening for her to talk more about it since you will already seem understanding and willing to talk about the issue.

Make these suggestions to her, slowly, and over time, rather than altogether. As you suggest things, look for small non-verbal or verbal clues that what you say is meaningful for her. For example, she might break eye contact, or wince, or start crying, or look more scared.

These little nuances may be the only clue you get that you are on the right track with your suppositions. If you are, then continue to refine your guesses, reassuring her that you are glad to be talking about these things and glad that she is able to talk about them too.

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