Here is September’s installment of “Ask Shelby” with Chester County’s own Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley:
My 11-year-old daughter has been very testy lately! She is sweet as anything sometimes but flips out easily and is short tempered. She seems annoyed and angry. When I ask her what’s wrong, she tells me that there is sadness in her heart that will never go away. It breaks my heart! So when I ask why… she gives me a huge list. Everything from her dog died, to her friend is mad at her, to wishing we hadn’t moved last year. Once she told me this, I feel she uses it as a cop out for being mean or disrespectful. Help!! I suggested that she go to a doctor to talk to them. Do you think I should take her to a therapist or even just a doctor? How do I help my daughter?
Tired of the Rollercoaster Ride
First let me say, I love how compassionate you are about your daughter. It’s hard to watch your child change, and it’s hard to see them in pain. I want you to know that it’s pretty common for pre-teen girls to start getting an attitude, being angry, more irritable, and stand-offish, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t address it. I would try some things at home first, and then if it isn’t getting better after a month or so, I would look into working with a therapist to address her needs. Sometimes at this stage, girls have so many changes going on: with their bodies, with school and friend dynamics…sometimes that sadness is related to not only the obvious heart-aches like losing a pet or a move, but also the loss of their childhood self. There is a feeling they need to conform to new standards of beauty and the cultural ideals of what is means to be feminine–and I think most women would agree that it is at times sad and crazy-making to try to be a healthy American woman.
If you think there might be a medical cause for her behavior, you can always start with a check up at the pediatrician. They might do blood work to make sure she’s not anemic or hypoglycemic or something like that (which can make you tired, irritable, and testy.) If you don’t get the sense it’s anything medical related, what your pediatrician can do is refer you to a therapist or talk about medication, and I wouldn’t go that route yet.
First, make sure she’s getting enough sleep, eating enough of a fairly balanced diet, with healthy fats and protein and good carbs. Second, talk with her about how it’s okay to feel sad, but that she has to learn to deal with it better, because it’s not okay to act the way she’s acting no matter how she feels. Tell her you’ll teach her how to express her feelings better and help herself feel better, and that you are going to hold her accountable for her behavior. Decide on a clear plan for behavior: tell her your expectations and the consequences for bad choices. (And then follow through–every time–ugh!) Help her find good ways to express her sadness and anger: with words, through journaling, through art, through dance, etc. When she feels mad, have her punch her pillow, rip up paper, run around the backyard (or the block if it’s safe and you trust her). When she feels sad, show her she can soothe herself by talking to you (or a friend or an aunt), wrap herself in a blanket, have a cup of hot cocoa, listen to music. Let her know all feelings are okay, and that most people feel that kind of heavy sadness at some point, and there are ways to make yourself feel better when you’re in a low place. Help her make time for joy: friends, sports, playing outside.
There are some cool (and kinda cheesy) relaxation CDs on Amazon, and some kids really like meditating to music or a guided meditation CD. I would also recommend you read “Reviving Ophelia” by Mary Pipher. It’s a great book written by a therapist about the difficulties girls entering adolescence face–it was written in the 90s, but it still so relevant for today. I think every woman and every parent of a pre-teen girl should read this book!
I hope that helps. If after a month or so of paying attention to all of those things you haven’t noticed any great improvement, it might be a good idea to see if she wants to talk with a therapist about the sadness in her heart and how she can make healthier choices for expressing herself.