Monday 11 December 2017

Is my daughter shy because her dad ignores her?

Illustration: Maisie McNeice
Illustration: Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

The clinical psychologist answers questions on shyness in children and how to deal with a wild nephew who is a visitor in your house.

Question: I have a painfully shy daughter aged seven. She is talkative at home and with her grandparents, but is finding it really hard to make friends. Her father seems to have very little interest in her. He loves her but doesn't make an effort to talk to her and never takes her anywhere. He is just busy and distracted with work and the farm. I often wonder would this have anything to do with her shyness? I never really know if this is even something I should be worrying about, but if there is something I should be doing to help her then please tell me.

David replies: It can be difficult to identify the source of shyness in children. For some their shyness, or their hesitancy in making new friends or talking with peers or adults, can be part of their temperament.

For others, their shyness or reluctance to socialise may be the result of unhappy or distressing experiences with peers or others. Maybe they have been teased or excluded at some point, or made to feel unwelcome, and so withdraw.

If your daughter's experience of her dad is that he is distant and uninterested then it could be having a big impact on her self-esteem. That, in turn, may affect her willingness to socialise or make friends.

If her dad pays her little attention, your daughter may feel rejected by him, like she is in some way unacceptable to him; or has been rejected by him as unworthy of his time, attention or even notice.

Naturally, that would be potentially very distressing for her. It could have a very negative impact on her sense of lovability, which is a key part of her self-esteem.

To feel good about ourselves we need to feel lovable and capable. Your daughter may indeed be feeling a core sense of "unlovability" if her dad is distant and uninterested in her.

If she feels at heart that she is not likeable or not acceptable then she may be, understandably, reluctant to try to make new friends, in the assumption that they too won't, or can't, like her.

Or, her assumption may be that even if she makes new friends, they will, in due course, reject her or lose interest in her, "like her dad has". Either way, she may feel it is just not worth the trouble to try to get to know new people.

The onus is on you to try to make her dad aware of the impact of his busy-ness and his unavailability to his daughter. He needs to know that he is currently making a big mistake by prioritising work and the farm over his daughter.

Making a mistake is not a problem, but continuing to make the same mistake, when it is made known to you, is problematic. Your husband must change.

He needs to realise that, more than just love her, he must show her that he loves her.

In practical terms, in families, we parents do this by spending time with our children, showing interest in the things they are interested in, hugging them, reading stories with them, snuggling up on the sofa for movie nights, meeting their needs for attention and so on.

We also tell children, regularly and often, that we love them.

You have to impress upon him that the investment of time and energy he puts into loving his daughter will benefit both him and her so much more, emotionally, than any satisfaction he might glean from his other work.

If, for whatever reason, your husband can't manage to do any of this, then you will have to work doubly hard to compensate. You will have to build up her self-esteem and give her that core sense of lovability.

You will also have to acknowledge, with your daughter, her loss of a relationship with her father. She needs to know that it is not for any fault of hers, that she doesn't know her father, but that it is because he doesn't make the time to get to know her.

It may seem unfair to blame her dad, but, in fact, it is entirely his responsibility and his moral duty to both love, and demonstrate his love for, his daughter. She deserves to know that you and her dad love her no matter what.

Her dad needs to hear how close he is to losing his opportunity for an intimate relationship with his daughter, and how much she may struggle in life as a consequence of his actions.

I am dreading my nephew's visit as he is wild and I'll just row with my sister about his behaviour

Question: My sister and her son, aged nine, are coming to me for a holiday and will stay with me for a week. I am really looking forward to seeing my sister but I know I will struggle with my nephew. He is wild and my sister doesn't deal with him well. She ignores lots of his misbehaviour and he runs rings around her, causing havoc in the process. He is also so rude and disrespectful to her that it is hard to sit by and watch. But then if I try to correct him, my sister gets upset with me and we end up having a fight. Any ideas to get a bit of harmony for the week?

David replies: Talking sooner rather than later with your sister, about the week ahead, might help to avoid distress and recrimination later.

Often in families, we don't set ground rules for how we expect to treat others and how we expect to be treated. Certainly, amongst adult siblings, the old dynamic that existed when you all lived together, can persist at any family reunion.

Indeed, we can perceive that it is too difficult to do it any other way. It is like the habits we have developed for how we deal with each other are set so solidly, that we feel we have no other choice but to follow them slavishly.

In truth, though, as we become adults and as we become parents, we need to develop new relationships with our own parents and with our siblings. It is critical that our family see us as adults and treat us as adults.

In return, we must act like adults.

Perhaps, whenever you talk about your nephew, or correct him directly, your sister feels criticised, blamed and diminished. Maybe this is an old pattern of engagement between the two of you.

I wonder which of you is the "big" sister.

If you are, then your sister may just feel put down and belittled whenever you talk negatively about her son, feeling like your displeasure or criticism is a reflection of her.

If your sister is the older of the two of you, then maybe she feels that her innate power (that she has always held as the older sister) is being threatened by what she perceives as an attack on her son. Correcting him may feel to her like you are correcting her.

Your sister may be well aware that she struggles in her relationship with her son. I could imagine that if he is an only child, he could easily have developed a strong sense of entitlement.

Children who have such an inflated sense of "I deserve… no matter the cost" never like to hear the word "no" and never like to have any limits placed on them and their behaviour. But, of course, such limits are critical.

If your sister does have such an awareness of potential problems in her parenting style, or in her son's behaviour, she may feel very vulnerable and exposed when other people highlight it.

Consequently, your sister is most likely to react defensively, trying to protect her son, or even trying to protect her own dignity as a parent.

If you can talk with your sister about these dynamics, admitting to your own role and wondering about hers, I think you may find that she will be able to listen, without flying off the handle.

If she knows that you are not judging her, but are, in fact, just understanding of the situation, she may feel more open to asking for, or accepting, help.

If she was open to it, it may be a relief for her if you take over the parenting role for her, while her son is staying with you.

As long as this is talked about and agreed in advance, it might make things easier for everyone.

If your sister feels like you are trying to mind your own sanity, rather than attacking her, by insisting that your rules apply in your house, then she may feel empowered to show a bit more backbone and resilience in the face of her son's misbehaviour.

If you are anticipating stresses within the visit, then your sister must be too.

Talking about the real issues, rather than falling out over old sibling dynamics, might just free you both up to enjoy the time together, and keep a tighter hold on her son.

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