Tuesday 20 August 2019

Dear David Coleman: My six-year-old daughter seems over-sensitive and negative. How can I help her?

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)
David Coleman

David Coleman

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

Q. Can you give me advice on how to deal with my over-sensitive six-year-old girl? She had a falling out with a friend at school recently and was very upset by the betrayal as she is a very loyal person herself. She was breaking down in tears on occasions for nearly a month, but has settled again and is back with that friend. She says that people hurt her feelings at school. At home she often complains that Daddy picks on her. She tends to see the glass as half empty even though she is fairly treated and is popular at school, being invited to play dates and parties within the class and never alone in the playground.

David replies: Over-sensitive is an interesting word. We use it like it is an ordinary adjective, but in fact it can carry a lot of judgement. It suggests that there is a certain amount of sensitivity that is acceptable, but sensitivity beyond that point is a bad thing.

When parents use the term "over-sensitive" or "over-sensitivity" they are usually applying their own internal belief system and value system, as a guide to determine whether the actions of their child falls into their view of normal sensitivity or excessive sensitivity.

I don't know if your daughter is being particularly over-sensitive. To my mind, she just seems very well attuned to the nuance of how other people tend to treat her. How she judges that treatment may be negative, but her sensitivity to, and awareness of, how she is being treated seems to me to be well developed.

So, let's take away the pejorative term of being over-sensitive and let's just acknowledge that she is sensitive to how others respond to her. This is a useful and positive skill or attribute to have.

What she then does with that awareness of how others are responding to her, is the area where you can help her. You can assist her in her judgement of whether she is being mistreated, or being treated in a normal, or positive way.

Her experience of being let down by her friend sounds like it was quite shocking and unexpected for her. Because she is loyal, she probably assumed that everyone else is loyal too. So, when her friend wasn't, it was probably very distressing for her.

She had two issues to deal with: the betrayal and the loss of her friendship. It could easily have taken her a month to process and deal with her grief about the two things. Being tearful and upset about it makes good sense to me.

From the tone of your query, I wonder if your real question is how can you teach your daughter to be more resilient in the face of setbacks in life, or in the face of occasional knockbacks from other people?

Resilience comes from our success at weathering the emotional storms that are associated with difficult or challenging experiences in life. It is our recognition that we have coping strategies that we can use to deal with adversity and that we have the inner strength to keep going, even if we might anticipate further challenges ahead.

At age six, though, your daughter is unlikely to have learned this yet. She will still be reliant on you and her dad for the emotional support to cope with life's challenges. This is why it is really important not to dismiss her sensitivity as some kind of bad thing or some kind of disadvantage.

We do have to remember that she is still learning about how to deal with her own emotions and about the emotions and behaviours of others.

I think if you show real understanding about how distressing or difficult she seems to find it when other children say or do mean things, then you will then be able to coach her in some skills to be able to deal with it. Once she knows that you "get" just how upsetting she finds it, you can explore with her what to say or do in response. If she feels that her responses are not acceptable to you, she is more likely to withdraw and internalise the perceived hurts and criticisms that are coming from other people too.

So, spend a lot more time trying to help her understand the feelings she actually has about her experiences with others, then you can suggest alternative, perhaps more positive or resilient, ways of responding to or interpreting those experiences.

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