So many terms get thrown around these days, and it's so easy to feel pressured by a relative who insists there's a "problem." The best advice for any parent: trust your instincts. You and you alone know your child best. If you have a gut feeling that something's wrong, don't let it fester. Talk to a professional so you can get all the information you need to make an informed decision that will put your "feeling" to rest, one way or the other.
My daughter is turning 8 and still has a very uneven temperament. She can be sweet and responsive today, or sullen and distant tomorrow. She frequently ignores people when they speak to her – sometimes because she is so engrossed in her thoughts that she doesn’t hear them and other times because she is purposely ignoring them and doesn’t want to interact. She goes into phases of ‘don’t talk to me.’ This is especially true with people outside our nuclear family. None of this is new, but I thought as she grew, some of this self-absorbed behaviors would go away. (Admittedly, it is a little better, but not consistently so.) Because of this type of behavior, a relative in our family has been pressuring us to get my daughter into therapy. How do I determine behavior that is due to having a difficult child and that which is a mental health issue?
From: Kristin B, Newton
Hi Kristin B,
Here are some questions to consider:
What have you heard over the years from your daughter’s teachers? Have they thrown up any red flags about her ability to get along in the classroom or to make friends? What about friends -- does she get invited, included or ignored by age-mates? What do parents of her friends say about her? Keep in mind that, for some children, it takes tons of energy and effort to pull themselves together to be appropriate in public settings -- school, sports, other people's homes -- and that when they are home, it's the only "safe" place for them to let down their guard.
Consider, for instance, if there's a pattern to when she says, “Don’t talk to me?” Is it done as a way to get negative attention, to excuse herself for being rude? Or does it happen after she’s done something very social and she’s on overload? Some kids need more quiet time than others; I don’t necessarily see that it’s bad for a child to be able to recognize that about him/herself. I’m thinking especially of a child with no siblings. After visiting a friend whose home is a whirlwind of activity, she may need to regroup. But it would be nice for her to learn a slightly more civilized way to say so, for instance, “I need some quiet time right now, please. Check in with me in half an hour.” Does your child take that kind of coaching?
There are social rules about how to respond to people when they speak to you, especially adults or people in authority. Does she know what those rules are? Is she able to recognize them? Some kids with social disorders simply can’t read social cues and need specific coaching although, from the way you describe your daughter, it sounds like this on-&-off behavior is part of her temperament – something that’s been with her from the start, and something that is within her control. You say her "don't talk to me" behavior is most likely to surface when she's not with the nuclear family. Is she anxious around other people? Slow to warm up? Is this a defense mechanism of some sort?
I guess the bottom line for me in terms of determining whether you’ve got a “difficult” child
– that is, a child who is oppositional and defiant, sometimes also called a “spirited” child
-- or a child with a potential social disability is if you suspect that the behavior is conscious, manipulative and/or under her control. In that case, I agree with the relative that it would be helpful to get to the bottom of it. If something is bugging her, it likely will not dissipate with time but rather manifest itself in different, age & stage appropriate ways.
If you think these behaviors fit the pattern of a social or behavioral problem, I would get some help with that, too.
Either way, a good starting point might be your pediatrician or a school psychologist. Here’s a bibliography that might also be helpful.
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About the author
Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.