Monday 23 April 2018

Dear David Coleman: Should I get help for my 'angry' nine-year-old girl?

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Photo posed

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

Q. My nine-year-old girl says she is 'angry' about things and wants to shout a lot. I know she finds it stressful in the house because one of her siblings has additional needs and can create a lot of tension at home. Should I bring her to someone to help her through whatever stress she is experiencing? By bringing her, I worry that she'll think that she is abnormal and then that will feed into a spiral of introspection. Should I just acknowledge that everyone feels angry, and give her some ways to cope with it? I don't want to take the wrong approach!

David replies: It can be hard to know the best approach to take with children. I can understand your dilemma about bringing her for help or not. Perhaps the best way to approach things is to keep the option of doing both.

For example, you could try to work with her, at home, yourself, giving her some support, understanding and tools to deal with her anger and stress. Then, after a period of time (maybe four to six weeks or so) you can review how she is doing and decide then if you need expert help for her or not.

It is easy to worry that bringing a child for psychological therapy might be stigmatising for them or for you. Similarly, as you have identified, we can worry that by seeking help we implicitly label our child as having some kind of problem that needs to be "fixed", perhaps magnifying or exacerbating the issue in their mind.

I do think there is a lot we can do to support our children, emotionally, with the struggles that they face in life. Indeed, helping them to understand and regulate their feelings is an important life lesson that is a critical part of their developing emotional intelligence.

With that in mind, you might like to show your daughter that you might be able to understand her feelings. The first step in that is to be able to name, for her, the feelings that you think she has, based on what she is saying or doing. So, for example, if she is shouting crossly, then you might say something like "you sound really angry at the moment", or "you seem really mad about something right now".

You will notice that I used phrases that imply some level of uncertainty about how she may feel. So I used "you sound like…" and "you seem…". It is important to leave some doubt there, since you can't know for sure exactly what she thinks or feels. You are, essentially, only making an educated guess and so we must express some element of that "unknowing".

Assuming you are guessing right, which you are likely to be since you know her well for nine years, you can then add to your emotional support of her by trying to help her to work out why she feels angry.

You already seem to have a pretty good idea why that may be; you think she may find it difficult or stressful to live with her sibling who has additional needs and creates a lot of tension in the home. Children can have very mixed feelings about a sibling with special needs. Linking her possible feelings of frustration to this likely stressor will help her to process those feelings of frustration.

To do this you might say something like, "you seem really mad right now. I think it can be hard to live with your brother/sister. Some of things he/she does can be really frustrating and annoying". What you will hopefully find is that if you are making the right link for her, then it will facilitate her to talk more about those frustrations.

Sometimes parents can feel reluctant to make these kinds of links in case they just unleash a load of invective from one child about another. However, if your hunch is right, and she is already frustrated by her sibling's behaviour then you are not adding to her frustration, rather you are giving her a forum to express it.

Generally, when children can express these kinds of difficult feelings, it can open them up to more positive feelings towards, or to more positive aspects of, their brother or sister.

One way or another, the more you encourage your daughter to talk about her anger or her distress, the less likely she is to show it in her behaviour and you should see a reduction in the "shoutiness".

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