Unhappy preteen feels unloved

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 3, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,
I've enjoyed reading your column so I hope you can help me. I have 2 kids, ages 8 (boy) and 10 (girl). They generally get along but, of course, sometimes fight. My daughter can be very mean to my son in the usual ways (e.g., telling me she wishes she were an only child). He doesn't say this kind of thing to her, but sometimes he will respond by hitting her.

What's new is that now my daughter will sometimes go into extended soliloquies of, "You don't love me, nobody in this family appreciates me, I'm going to run away and you won't miss me," and then she hides under a blanket and cries. I'm just wondering what the best way to react is. Should I ignore this? Or try to comfort her? Provide her with evidence to prove what she's feeling isn't true? Or just tell her we can talk when she's calmed down? I remember feeling the same way when I was a kid, and I recall my mother saying to me "stop feeling sorry for yourself." But times have changed and maybe I should be reacting differently than my own mom. Any advice would be appreciated.

From: Somervillle Mom

Dear Somerville Mom,

Boy, yes, I can remember feeling that way, too. Sigh. Some things never change! Except, as you say, maybe the way we react. I didn't find my mother's response particularly comforting, and I suspect you didn't, either. I'd like to think our generation's more psychologically-minded responses are more helpful but, just to be sure, I consulted with psychologist Sharon Lamb of UMass Boston. She's the author of "The Secret Lives of Girls," one of my go-to books.

"I would reassure this mom that she’s thinking along the right tracks," Lamb writes in an email.

Here's the "put yourself in her shoes" developmental/psychological thinking that she and I agree on about your daughter:

When she goes through her soliloquy, she's not thinking that you don't love her. More likely, she having a whole bunch of thoughts that boil down to: "Why would anybody love me!?" Sometimes this is puberty-driven/hormonal, sometimes it has to do with the mean and nastiness that girls this age can inflict on each other.

Even if reassuring her that you do love her doesn't feel like it helps, do it anyway. It does help; she needs to hear it. You can also point out all the tangible reasons that make her someone you love (as opposed to the intangible one that you love her unconditionally because she's your daughter) because those qualities are the ones that can reassure (remind) her that she is a person of worth. Be as specific as you can be: "I love you because you are someone who is creative; who is kind to animals; who is brave enough to run right into the ocean instead of going in inch by inch" ... etc.

What's also helpful is to not just dismiss her concern. Ask her what makes her think she's unlovable or unhappy (even though those aren't the words she's using), by listening to her feelings -- about her brother, about her friends, school.

I love this thought from Lamb: "I also have to remind you that moms are like teddy bears – when things go wrong in life, we bop them around – because they’re there!"

Generally, these feelings and reactions of your daughter's will come and go; that is, there will be periods of time when she seems like her old self. If they persist without relent, Lamb says, "I would definitely try some therapy."

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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13 comments so far...
  1. The LW writes that she has a son(8) and daughter(10).

    If this is the normal way that these parents refer to their offspring, then part of the problem is plain to see. The daughter is articulating her feelings very clearly when she wishes to have been an only child.

    The LW should try for one month to say "my daughter and my son" in birth order, instead of a gender preference. If this makes a difference, then it shows what habit needs counselling. Ask a close family friend for their honest opinion to see if this preference is being expressed in other ways.

    Birth order is a fact that cannot be denied. When parents derange birth order by expressing preference for younger child(ren) in public, they send a devastating message to the oldest one, that they somehow don't matter the same way. Gender preference is similarly corrosive to the child being referred to as the lower priority.

    The consequences for the lifetime of the oldest offspring in extreme cases can be that their siblings never take them seriously and this persists long after the parents are dead and gone.

    Posted by Irene January 3, 11 08:51 AM
  1. Irene, I really think you're reading into things a little too much. I have two boys. When asked how old my kids are, I often say 8 and 10. It's not because I like the 8 year old better, it's because the number 8 comes first!

    Posted by mom2boys January 3, 11 09:55 AM
  1. Irene, you're wacky. You've read way too far into a simple comment. The LW could have presented the daughter second because it was the daughter she intended to talk about.

    Posted by Sarah B January 3, 11 10:30 AM
  1. I always go in reverse chron order as well - I have a 1 year old, an 11 year old, and a 16 year old. It is not about gender preference. It is a preference for counting in the order the numbers go.

    Posted by jjlen January 3, 11 11:05 AM
  1. Wow @Irene. As an eldest child with 3 siblings, even I go in reverse birth order when listing us, since the lowest number comes first. Sheesh. Get over it and get your head out of the crank psycho-babble books.

    To the LW: Sound advice given. I remember feeling the same at your daughter's age and my mum's responses never comforted me either. Best of luck and I hope that with patience and perseverance, you get through this with your daughter.

    Posted by Phe January 3, 11 11:39 AM
  1. My oldest daughter has started this even younger. The advice is good, but I find that sometimes what she really needs is one-on-one Mommy or Daddy time. Mine just doesn't get much of that, and it ends up being worth getting a sitter for the siblings and getting time to concentrate on her. Bonus points if BOTH Mom and Dad concentrate on her.
    Two caveats - (1) Sometimes her mood just hits wrong and it feels like wasted time. It's not, but it's disappointing. (2) This may not be your daughter's issue.

    Posted by Reading mom January 3, 11 01:12 PM
  1. I agree with the above posters that the order in which you introduce your children is probably completely unrelated to preferences. But, Irene's comment does raise the issue of preferences, which I am curious about. I may be interpreting this wrong, but it seems like the two paragraphs of her letter are related, and the letter writer's daughter gets upset and makes those comments as a result of the fights she has with her brother. Maybe the daughter feels like mom's intervention in any such fights is skewed in favor of brother. In which case, her reaction could be prompted, at least in part, by a preference issue, and not just by hormones/puberty/friends/etc. Would the advice be the same?

    Posted by M. January 3, 11 01:37 PM
  1. All siblings sometimes wish the other siblings would, if not disappear permanently, at least go away and come back next week. They get sick of having to be around each other and be reasonably nice to each other all the time. This sounds pretty routine to me.

    I would not let the boy get away with hitting the girl to get even with her saying she'd wish he weren't there. Maybe that is the problem--that Mom is allowing this? Would she allow the girl to hit the boy if he complained about her to Mom?

    Posted by di January 3, 11 02:22 PM
  1. I think the attack on Irene is a bit skewed.
    I cannot stress enough that every time my family and friends refer to their family and list them out, it has always most certainly been in birth order.
    Cards and letters used to be signed Jon and Jane.
    Then it was Jon, Jane, and Jennifer.
    Now it Jon, Jane, Jennifer and Jason.

    Whether it's family or friends, they've always listed children in birth order; probably out of the habit formed upon the birth of the first child.

    That's not to say Irene is inherently correct; the order that the LW referred to her children could ideed be coincidental. But to say Irene is wacky for the thought is wacky itself. I think the point that shouldn't be missed is that IF the mother does unintentionally show preference, she should be mindful of it. And only the LW can answer that question.

    Posted by SLDM January 3, 11 02:43 PM
  1. So, I'm the last born of 5 kids. What about poor me in the birth order you speak of, Irene? Am I 5th preferred by my mother? Doesn't somebody always lose out regardless of order? What a bunch of hooey.

    Posted by Achemgee January 3, 11 06:23 PM
  1. No reason to discount Irene's opinion!
    I also thought that the LW's wording was odd, and had to re-read the sentence where she listed the kids. I myself would have said "a girl, 10, and a boy, 8."
    The LW could try alternative ways to describe her children, and could discuss the different styles with her daughter. When I was 10 I would have loved to discuss cultural choices with my mother.

    Posted by Cameo Rose January 3, 11 08:08 PM
  1. I would suggest set a day each week if you can and have a girlie date with your daughter. It doesn't have to cost a lot and your daughter would have your full attention for the day. It would give her something to look forward to.

    Posted by JoAnne January 4, 11 01:54 AM
  1. Some people seem to read too fast.

    I will stand by my reading and add this: the daughter is labeled by the LW as "very mean to her brother" when she says some age-normal stuff about wishing to be an only child. The boy hits his older sister and SHE gets called the problem??? HUH???

    What has not been said by the LW is anything about the daughter being required to do lots more housework than the son, or being required to babysit him for free, or how the father relates to his offspring. These gender-based loads might be the real origin of the daughter's remarks.

    But I went out of my way to say IF and MIGHT. I suggested that the LW ask for an honest opinion from a close observer of the ineteractions that none of us has seen. I get called wacky? OK. New Years Resolution, keep my ideas to myself.

    Posted by Irene January 4, 11 10:36 PM
 
13 comments so far...
  1. The LW writes that she has a son(8) and daughter(10).

    If this is the normal way that these parents refer to their offspring, then part of the problem is plain to see. The daughter is articulating her feelings very clearly when she wishes to have been an only child.

    The LW should try for one month to say "my daughter and my son" in birth order, instead of a gender preference. If this makes a difference, then it shows what habit needs counselling. Ask a close family friend for their honest opinion to see if this preference is being expressed in other ways.

    Birth order is a fact that cannot be denied. When parents derange birth order by expressing preference for younger child(ren) in public, they send a devastating message to the oldest one, that they somehow don't matter the same way. Gender preference is similarly corrosive to the child being referred to as the lower priority.

    The consequences for the lifetime of the oldest offspring in extreme cases can be that their siblings never take them seriously and this persists long after the parents are dead and gone.

    Posted by Irene January 3, 11 08:51 AM
  1. Irene, I really think you're reading into things a little too much. I have two boys. When asked how old my kids are, I often say 8 and 10. It's not because I like the 8 year old better, it's because the number 8 comes first!

    Posted by mom2boys January 3, 11 09:55 AM
  1. Irene, you're wacky. You've read way too far into a simple comment. The LW could have presented the daughter second because it was the daughter she intended to talk about.

    Posted by Sarah B January 3, 11 10:30 AM
  1. I always go in reverse chron order as well - I have a 1 year old, an 11 year old, and a 16 year old. It is not about gender preference. It is a preference for counting in the order the numbers go.

    Posted by jjlen January 3, 11 11:05 AM
  1. Wow @Irene. As an eldest child with 3 siblings, even I go in reverse birth order when listing us, since the lowest number comes first. Sheesh. Get over it and get your head out of the crank psycho-babble books.

    To the LW: Sound advice given. I remember feeling the same at your daughter's age and my mum's responses never comforted me either. Best of luck and I hope that with patience and perseverance, you get through this with your daughter.

    Posted by Phe January 3, 11 11:39 AM
  1. My oldest daughter has started this even younger. The advice is good, but I find that sometimes what she really needs is one-on-one Mommy or Daddy time. Mine just doesn't get much of that, and it ends up being worth getting a sitter for the siblings and getting time to concentrate on her. Bonus points if BOTH Mom and Dad concentrate on her.
    Two caveats - (1) Sometimes her mood just hits wrong and it feels like wasted time. It's not, but it's disappointing. (2) This may not be your daughter's issue.

    Posted by Reading mom January 3, 11 01:12 PM
  1. I agree with the above posters that the order in which you introduce your children is probably completely unrelated to preferences. But, Irene's comment does raise the issue of preferences, which I am curious about. I may be interpreting this wrong, but it seems like the two paragraphs of her letter are related, and the letter writer's daughter gets upset and makes those comments as a result of the fights she has with her brother. Maybe the daughter feels like mom's intervention in any such fights is skewed in favor of brother. In which case, her reaction could be prompted, at least in part, by a preference issue, and not just by hormones/puberty/friends/etc. Would the advice be the same?

    Posted by M. January 3, 11 01:37 PM
  1. All siblings sometimes wish the other siblings would, if not disappear permanently, at least go away and come back next week. They get sick of having to be around each other and be reasonably nice to each other all the time. This sounds pretty routine to me.

    I would not let the boy get away with hitting the girl to get even with her saying she'd wish he weren't there. Maybe that is the problem--that Mom is allowing this? Would she allow the girl to hit the boy if he complained about her to Mom?

    Posted by di January 3, 11 02:22 PM
  1. I think the attack on Irene is a bit skewed.
    I cannot stress enough that every time my family and friends refer to their family and list them out, it has always most certainly been in birth order.
    Cards and letters used to be signed Jon and Jane.
    Then it was Jon, Jane, and Jennifer.
    Now it Jon, Jane, Jennifer and Jason.

    Whether it's family or friends, they've always listed children in birth order; probably out of the habit formed upon the birth of the first child.

    That's not to say Irene is inherently correct; the order that the LW referred to her children could ideed be coincidental. But to say Irene is wacky for the thought is wacky itself. I think the point that shouldn't be missed is that IF the mother does unintentionally show preference, she should be mindful of it. And only the LW can answer that question.

    Posted by SLDM January 3, 11 02:43 PM
  1. So, I'm the last born of 5 kids. What about poor me in the birth order you speak of, Irene? Am I 5th preferred by my mother? Doesn't somebody always lose out regardless of order? What a bunch of hooey.

    Posted by Achemgee January 3, 11 06:23 PM
  1. No reason to discount Irene's opinion!
    I also thought that the LW's wording was odd, and had to re-read the sentence where she listed the kids. I myself would have said "a girl, 10, and a boy, 8."
    The LW could try alternative ways to describe her children, and could discuss the different styles with her daughter. When I was 10 I would have loved to discuss cultural choices with my mother.

    Posted by Cameo Rose January 3, 11 08:08 PM
  1. I would suggest set a day each week if you can and have a girlie date with your daughter. It doesn't have to cost a lot and your daughter would have your full attention for the day. It would give her something to look forward to.

    Posted by JoAnne January 4, 11 01:54 AM
  1. Some people seem to read too fast.

    I will stand by my reading and add this: the daughter is labeled by the LW as "very mean to her brother" when she says some age-normal stuff about wishing to be an only child. The boy hits his older sister and SHE gets called the problem??? HUH???

    What has not been said by the LW is anything about the daughter being required to do lots more housework than the son, or being required to babysit him for free, or how the father relates to his offspring. These gender-based loads might be the real origin of the daughter's remarks.

    But I went out of my way to say IF and MIGHT. I suggested that the LW ask for an honest opinion from a close observer of the ineteractions that none of us has seen. I get called wacky? OK. New Years Resolution, keep my ideas to myself.

    Posted by Irene January 4, 11 10:36 PM
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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.

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