Monday 16 December 2019

My daughter has changed so much because of her friend

Illustration Maisie McNeice.
Illustration Maisie McNeice.
David Coleman

David Coleman

Parental expert Dr David Coleman advises what to do when a friend appears to be having a very negative effect on an eight-year-old daughter and on how you can encourage a child who won't speak in school.

Question: I am worried about my eight-year-old little girl. She was always a very gentle and agreeable child until she started hanging out with a neighbouring girl. Our daughter has now started to act like this other girl; not doing what we ask her to, complaining relentlessly if she doesn't get what she wants. It is almost impossible to separate them as we live on a small estate where all the kids are in and out of each other's houses. We have lost the sweet little girl we once knew. The change in her is so great we've considered moving. What can we do?

David replies: It is always worrying when we see that a friend is having a negative effect on our own child. Our gut instinct is to try to protect our child and to interrupt or intervene in the friendship.

It is even more frustrating, however, when the influence of that friend leads to more misbehaviour or more conflict at home. I can imagine it must be very distressing for you to see your daughter change so much and so negatively.

I had a very similar query, a few weeks ago, about a boy whose parents were worried about the potential for one of his "friends" to be a really negative influence. But, for that family, there wasn't yet any evidence that their son had changed because of his friendship.

In your situation, however, you do seem to have a lot of evidence that your daughter has changed, quite considerably, as a result of her friendship with this neighbouring girl. It does, in fact, seem like this girl is very significantly influencing your daughter to become cheeky, whingey and to misbehave.

That influence is not necessarily a conscious action on the part of the neighbouring girl. But either her status, or her charisma, is enough to make it attractive for your daughter to copy her behaviour and her attitude.

While I am always a bit circumspect about the appropriateness and the effectiveness of parents intervening in their children's friendships, I do think, in your situation, that you must try to do something to break the tie between them.

Your daughter needs some time away from the influence of her friend. This might allow her to return to her old old, habitual, behaviours and attitudes; the "sweet little girl" you knew.

Breaking up their friendship is no easy task, however. But, to start, I think you need to focus on the specific behaviours of your daughter, that you believe are influenced by the friend's behaviour.

Find out what it is about the friend that your daughter likes. Then explain to your daughter the changes in her that you have seen, that you don't like. Show your daughter how the negatives of this friend seem to outweigh the positives.

Then, make her aware when you notice her misbehaving and explain that if it continues you will restrict her time with this friend.

I know you describe that your estate is small and all the children feel the freedom to come and go between each other's houses. However, if you really want to try to interrupt the friendship you will have to physically separate them. That will require effort and vigilance on your part.

So, you can either prevent this neighbouring girl from coming into your house, or set a curfew, or a limit on the amount of time, or the places where, your daughter goes out. Be clear with your daughter, that this is not because you don't like the friend, but it is because your daughter's behaviour is out of line.

You already seem to feel that trying to separate them, within the estate, is impossible. Your somewhat drastic option, of moving house, may become more and more appealing.

Before it gets to that stage, your other option is to try to influence the behaviour of the neighbouring girl. See, if you can address her behaviour, when you witness it and let her know, too, that such behaviour will mean that she won't be welcome at your house or near your daughter.

Ultimately, though, I think you have read the situation right and you need to create distance between this girl and your daughter. You need to allow your daughter the opportunity to regain her former pleasant self, whatever the cost.

My five-year-old daughter won't speak a word in school and it is driving her teacher nuts!

Question: I have taken her to my own doctor and he tells me that I am worrying about nothing and that the child will speak when she is ready. However this is driving the teacher nuts to say the least. She speaks to family members and people she knows well. She was slow to speak in playschool but when she did there was no stopping her. Is there anything I can do to help her?

David replies: It is hard not to worry when we think that any of our children has a problem that might affect them socially or academically. Naturally we want the best for our children and so it can be very upsetting to think that something will get in the way of that.

I don't think you are worrying over nothing, but I do, like your GP, think your daughter will speak when she is ready to speak.

Selective mutism, previously called elective mutism, describes when children seem to be unable to speak in certain social situations. It is generally understood to be associated with some kind of social anxiety. A child with selective mutism may seem painfully shy, or withdrawn, in some situations and so be unable to speak up. This may indeed be what is happening for your daughter.

But, comfortingly, you have already had the experience of her being in playschool and being initially shy and quiet, but after a period of settling, becoming much more sociable and chatty.

You also know that she doesn't have a problem speaking, per se. She became very involved in the playschool, participating fully, and she also chats to family and friends at home.

So, even if she has selective mutism, all the evidence suggests that she will, naturally and in her own good time, come to speak and engage fully.

I don't think she needs an individual programme or specific plan to overcome any anxiety. She seems to have the natural ability to get past any anxiety when left to her own devices.

Indeed, if the teacher wasn't going "nuts" about your daughter's reticence, I'd imagine that you wouldn't be half as concerned. It sounds like the teacher is very invested in making your daughter speak in the classroom.

This may, in fact, be part of the problem. If the teacher, for example, is demonstrating her frustration with your daughter, or is deliberately setting up situations where your daughter is expected to contribute, it may be adding to her reluctance to speak.

Some tips you might like to pass on to her teacher are: Remember that your daughter is not being defiant, stubborn or disobedient, she is probably just anxious.

The teacher's aim is to make the environment less anxiety-provoking, not to persuade your daughter to speak. Let your daughter sit to the side of the class, rather than being in direct eye contact with the teacher.

Let your daughter use alternative ways of communicating, like nodding, shaking of her head or showing cards with words on them to respond to instructions or requests.

Find an outgoing child to be your daughter's "buddy", whom she can sit beside and whom she may in time feel confident enough to whisper or talk to.

You can further support your daughter by arranging play dates with her "buddy" or other children from the class that she seems to be interested in. You might also include any friends she made in the pre-school who might act as a bridge to the new children she is meeting in school.

If the teacher has the time and inclination, it can often be really helpful for her to do a home visit, where she can meet your daughter in your daughter's comfortable and secure surroundings.

Again the aim is not to get your daughter to talk to the teacher or the other children, but simply to further familiarise her with them.

After all of that, I think it will just be a waiting game. As long as there is little pressure put on your daughter to speak, I think she will find her way in her own time.

I have a loveable five-year-old daughter who started school in September but has not spoken a word in school to her classmates or her teacher.

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