Monday 18 December 2017

Dear David: My seven-year-old daughter is so destructive. Could the break up of my marriage be to blame?

Separation is always difficult for children
Separation is always difficult for children

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

Q. I am a single mum with five beautiful children. My only daughter is second in the family, aged seven. She is bright and outgoing but is very destructive on a daily basis. She gets violent. She hits, kicks and screams for no reason and often overreacts. She tells us she wants to die, has cut herself on purpose, and told her cousin I did it. Our marriage breakdown was traumatic. Her older brother has a disability and is in a wheelchair. Life is tough for her, but no worse than for the rest of the children, who don't act like her. What can I do with her?

David replies: Your daughter sounds  very distressed. While I do hear that all of your children have been faced with the same family circumstances, and the others don't seem so distressed, it doesn't take away from the possibility that your daughter just doesn't cope with the challenge and adversity as well as they do.

I think it is quite likely that the separation may have impacted her, as might her brother's disability affect her. There are many reasons why she experiences these as more traumatic than her siblings.

Perhaps her relationship with her dad was different, by dint of being the only girl. She may have had a special, or close, or simply different, bond with him than the boys do. Maybe she experiences the separation from him more keenly.

Perhaps her relationship with you is also different to the relationship you have with the boys? Even if you treat her just the same, she may experience it differently, or may even perceive some injustice.

Similarly, her relationship with her older brother may be more complex, as she is so close in age to him, than the other boys' relationships with him. No doubt her brother requires more physical care (possibly even medical care) than she does. While she may accept this, she may also resent it somewhat too.

I do think that her destructive behaviour is her way of trying to show you that she is struggling in a very significant way with her life. I think she is very unhappy, and has no effective way to talk about this, and so it is leaking out in her hurtful, harmful, behaviour.

It might be worth involving her in some kind of therapy. She is young to be going to a "talking" therapy, but she might really benefit from play therapy, or art therapy. I think she needs opportunities to express some complex, and negative, feelings.

Alongside any therapeutic intervention you may get for her, you can also use lots of empathy with her to help to try to connect to these feelings.

You will need to do this, practically, by trying to guess at the feelings she may have inside. Ideally, you will find opportunities to do this before she explodes in the height of an episode.

You can use statements to show her that you might understand how she feels. This allows her to connect in with the feelings and may encourage her to talk about the negativity she has inside.

Those statements are best phrased using words like "I wonder if you feel…" or "I'm guessing you feel…" or "it seems to me you feel…" or "you look/sound like you feel…". Be wary of sounding too definitive and so avoid phrases like, "I know you feel…"

After starting the statement you then finish it out by best guessing the feeling you think most fits the circumstance. Some feelings, or potential issues for her, that you might like to experiment with are:

"I guess you might feel upset and be missing your dad."

"I guess you might feel confused, because it's hard when mams and dads split up."

"I guess you love your brother but it might seem unfair that he takes up so much of my time."

"I guess it's hard to feel special when it is so busy in our house."

"I guess you might feel cross that nothing seems to be easy, everything is so hard at times."

Try to show your daughter, as much as possible, that you might understand her. Hopefully you are already beginning to think of lots of other issues, or things that might be distressing her. The more willing you are to try to connect with her experience and her feelings the less she might act them out destructively.

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