Thursday 23 November 2017

Dear David Coleman: My nine-year-old is anxious and not coping - how can I help her?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

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

Q. My nine-year-old has always been a very anxious child. She gets herself into such a state over the simplest little thing. She is always putting herself down, even though she quite a high achiever. A girl in school excluded her last year and this just added to her unhappiness and nervousness. I find she has no coping skills at all. She is my eldest child and I want to know how to help her with her anxiety. Whenever I try to talk to her about any of these issues she starts crying, so I end up feeling I have only made matters worse.

David replies: It must feel like a bit of a "catch 22" situation when your efforts to talk to your daughter about her anxiety and lack of confidence seem to add to that anxiety and upset.

The fact that you are trying to talk to her about her anxiety or her self-esteem is not a bad thing. The manner in which you are talking to her, however, may be what is further distressing her.

If she feels bad about herself then its quite likely that she tends to interpret whatever you are saying to her as further criticism of her. So, rather than being reassured, or feeling supported, she just feels further put down.

Rather than focusing too much on her anxiety, which you describe has always been part of her personality, I'd suggest you focus on building up her self-esteem.

Self-esteem has two major factors, our sense of lovability and our sense of capability. Most children will form their judgements of themselves based on how others seem to judge them. Their self-esteem, then, may actually just be an extension of how others seem to esteem them (or not!).

Your daughter, if she was excluded in school, will have had a very negative experience that might have impacted on her sense of lovability. Central to feeling lovable is that we feel accepted, that people want us around and that people respect us. Exclusion cuts at the very heart of this.

If it is clear from others' behaviour that they don't want us around, or don't respect us or like us, then it is hard to conclude anything other than that we are not lovable.

In your daughter's situation, if this exclusion was added to an already fragile sense of self-esteem, based on her own judgement that she isn't very capable because her anxiety may have prevented her from doing stuff, then it may have left her very vulnerable.

So, if you can build her self-esteem, then you might give her a positive enough sense of self that allows her to be a bit more robust and resilient to be able to tackle her anxiety. Dealing with anxiety requires a positive mindset and a willingness to challenge ourselves: feeling that fear and doing things anyway.

The best ways to build a sense of lovability are to ensure that you speak to her with respect, to show her that she is acceptable. Show her that you delight in her, simply because she 'is'. This involves laughing, smiling, showing interest in her, hugging her and so on. Loving touch is especially important for children to receive.

Be wary of explicit or implicit criticism of her. By all means do correct her behaviour when needed, but be careful not to criticise her. If you can support her friendships, that too will add to her sense of being acceptable and being wanted and included by others.

Building capability is about helping children to see their strengths. Are there things that they are good at, or do well at? It is also about giving them opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way, such that they feel useful and valuable.

When they make mistakes we need to treat those mistakes as learning opportunities rather than reasons to punish them. Sometimes it helps to acknowledge and praise their efforts, not just their successes, since children may have worked hard but still not fully achieved something. When you do praise her, be specific about what you are praising her for.

If you can support your daughter to think, and feel, more positively about herself it might go a long way to giving her the confidence to then tackle her anxieties, as her greater self-belief might override her current, likely, sense of powerlessness.

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