7 Year Old Over-Reacts to Setbacks, Minor Disappointments

Our daughter is 7, and has a fairly intense personality, emotionally. When she's happy, everything is great. When she's upset, it's the end of the world. She's bright, articulate and fairly sensitive. She's also convinced that her way is the right way, always. (That's a trait I understand, as it runs strongly through my family, and I know that time and some lessons in tact will help.)

My issue with her is when she faces a setback or when something doesn't go her way, she reacts out of proportion to the issue, as I see it. If she's asked to wait 5 minutes to use the computer, it's a tragedy and she wails and carries on. I try hard to validate her feelings and give her hugs (if she's in the mood to take them) when she has these setbacks, but I feel like she should be able to take minor disappointments in stride without major wailing for 10 minutes.

Related to this, I think, is the fact that she remembers small slights or unfairness and she can't let go of them. For example, one of her classmates got to do a special job (telling the students that they could go out to recess) at lunchtime once last year (about May), and she's still upset by this 5 months later. (She understand intellectually why this one classmate was given 'special' treatment (there was a good reason), but it still bothers her so much that she rants about it.)

She's got a strong sense of justice and may well be a great advocate for a cause someday. Unfortunately, at 7, what we're getting is a lot of whining about how things aren't fair for her. It doesn't matter that things 'even out' over time -- if it's perceived as unfair at that moment, she wails and remembers it for a very very long time. I'm beginning to be afraid for her future mental health if she carries grudges about these small things.

She's been raised in a very AP manner, still comes in and sleeps in our room when she needs to (nearly every night), and I try to spend 20-30 minutes most days playing with her or doing something with her to foster connection.

Is there any way to help her learn to put her negatives feelings/emotions into perspective?

I can understand your concern about your daughter. You're doing a wonderful job parenting -- focusing on attachment, spending time connecting with your daughter, and, I assume from your description, you are not using any kind of punishment with her. And yet she's struggling.

Holding a negative conclusion about something and continuing to dwell on it months later obviously doesn't help us become optimistic and resilient. And while it is normal for a three year old to have a hard time waiting, a seven year old should generally be able to manage her emotions enough to do so, even if she isn't happy about it.

Luckily, there are things you can do to help your daughter with these issues. Your goal is to give her more ability to regulate her mind and emotions.

Each of us suffers the slings and arrows of fortune. So why do some of us tend to over-react to disappointments, when others don't, and how can we address these challenges?

1. Some of us are carrying around a full backpack of negative feelings and we are more "ready to blow" when something goes wrong.

2. Some of us are more anxious. When something goes wrong we have a hard time soothing ourselves.

3. Some of us see things more negatively. When something goes wrong, we conclude that everything will always go wrong for us and things are hopeless. We get depressed or angry (which are related states.)

4. Some of us are better at processing our emotions so that we can more positively integrate our experiences and make sense of them.

Let's take these four things in turn.

1. Some of us are carrying around a full backpack of negative feelings and we are more "ready to blow" when something goes wrong.

All humans experience big feelings that scare us. Our natural tendency is to bottle those feelings up to keep them at bay, rather than to let ourselves feel them. However, as adults, we have a fully-developed cerebral cortex and the life experience that allows us to manage our emotions more easily. Not only can we keep ourselves (hopefully) from automatically acting on an emotion, we also know that we can weather disappointment (for instance) and come out ok.

But young humans have a much harder time with this. Their emotions are big and scary. They often "stuff" big feelings rather than letting themselves "feel" those emotions (which is the only way for the emotions to dissipate.)

When we have a big emotion, we need a witness. That helps us to feel safe enough to let ourselves feel the emotion. (Notice how you are more likely to cry when you're sad if someone you love hugs you and strokes your hair.) So our children need us to accept and empathize with their feelings so they can allow them to bubble up. When we aren't around, those upsets that happen at school or with peers get stuffed.

Unless they have regular opportunities for raucous laughter (which releases pent up emotion) and good cries, young children often end up lugging around a full backpack of big feelings. When something upsets them, these feelings burst out.

I have noticed that in some (by no means all) families who use AP practices, parents rush in to stop kids from crying. The child gets the message that the feelings behind the tears are to be avoided at all costs.

By contrast, I have noticed that families who use punitive discipline often raise children who do not so easily burst into tears, but who are quick to anger. These kids have the same full backpack of unprocessed feelings that they don't feel safe expressing, but because feelings are generally not "safe" in their homes, these kids are defending against those feelings bursting out by getting angry.

What does all this have to do with your daughter? For whatever reason -- and it may just be that she is a very sensitive girl with big feelings -- she has a lot of feelings that need processing. The are bursting out at inappropriate times. I suspect that daily games that get her giggling would help her to vent some of that emotional energy (since giggling discharges the same energy as tears.) Here's an article on what kinds of games I mean.

Games for Bonding and Emotional Intelligence

Adapt these to your daughter and use any version of a game that gets her giggling. For her, I would have fun with games in which you are wrong, since she loves to be right!

But your daughter also probably just needs to cry. So when she sobs about not being able to use the computer, that is a good thing, not a bad thing. Instead of trying to stop her, help her to cry by empathizing: "It is so hard for you to wait. It seems like this waiting will never end. I'm sorry it's so hard." Don't talk too much, just enough to help her to cry as much as she needs to. Is she over-reacting? Sure. But it's a great opportunity to let out all kinds of sadness and frustration.

Is it usual for a 7 year old to have such big reactions to small disappointments? No, most 7 year olds are pretty good at regulating their emotions. But it is certainly within the spectrum of normal. So I suggest that you really try to help her to "express" her feelings to you as an empathic witness, and at the same time work with the areas below. Remember, her feelings are just feelings. She's allowed to have them. And the more opportunities she has to giggle and cry, the less she will over-react to small slights.

 

2. Some of us are more anxious.

When something goes wrong, some of us have a harder time than others soothing ourselves. Children learn to self-soothe by being soothed by their parents. When we physically soothe our crying infant, toddler, or preschooler, she responds by strengthening the neural pathways to soothe herself. Kids who tend to be more anxious may need extra, physical soothing when things go wrong, even past the preschool years.

Is that normal for a 7 year old, when the "wrong" thing is small? Well, first of all, it may not seem small to her. Second, it is not usual, but it is well within the realm of normal. So I would suggest letting go of the judgment about whether she is over-reacting, and instead focusing on helping her solidify the "habit" of soothing herself. So, for instance, you might come up with a little practice that she can do when she is upset that soothes her, preferably one she can do in public. The one I usually recommend is "tapping" the acupressure point on the base of the hand (where you would hit your hand if you used it to karate chop). This has been shown to be effective in calming the body's arousal, and the more one does it, the more effective it is. Here is an article on how to do this:

http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/raise-great-kids/emotionally-intelligent-child/EFT-with-kids

You might also help your daughter develop a little mantra, like "This will be ok in the end. If it isn't ok, it isn't the end." or whatever works for her to help herself get calm.

These suggestions don't mean that you just tell her to calm herself and walk away. You empathize and let her vent. You hold her and soothe her. But when she is able to move on emotionally, you help her calm down with a little tapping and a mantra. Then you help her work with her mind, as described below. Over time, your daughter will adopt your soothing techniques to soothe herself when you aren't there to help her, and even as she begins to get upset. These techniques will be associated with producing a calm state, from all this practice with you.

3. Some of us see things more negatively.

When something goes wrong, some of us are able to see it as a temporary setback, that we can overcome and prevent in the future. Those are the optimists. By contrast, some of us conclude that everything will always go wrong for us and things are hopeless. We get depressed or angry (which are related states). Your daughter's repeated tendency to tell herself a negative story about a past event can be interrupted by teaching her to notice and correct her mind's default tendency to see things negatively.

There's a whole article on my website about this, here:

http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/raise-great-kids/emotionally-intelligent-child/optimism

To work with your daughter's somewhat entrenched negativity, you might need more than one article. I highly recommend Tamar Chansky's book, Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility, and Happiness . Parents who have used this book tell me it has made a huge difference in their life with their child.

If you feel, after reading this book and trying her suggestions, that you have not seen enough change in your daughter, I urge you to find a good Cognitive therapist in your area who focuses on children, and do short-term therapy with them (with you in the room, to learn how to talk with your daughter about these issues) to help your daughter learn to manage her perspective. At 7, she is still young enough to get quick results with this intervention.

4. Some of us are better at processing our emotions so that we can more positively integrate our experiences and make sense of them.  Humans are "meaning-makers." When something big happens to us emotionally, we are designed to look for a lesson in it. We all, always, draw conclusions about life and ourselves and others from our emotional experiences. We do this by reviewing the emotions of the event, and using our cognitive processes to "understand" the event. This is essentially linking up two very different parts of our brain -- the thinking part and the feeling part -- to learn.

Your daughter needs your help to retell any story that is bugging her. So, for instance, get her to tell you the story of the child who received special treatment last May. Validate her feelings about it. But then, extend the discussion. How else could she see the story? Is there another conclusion she could draw from it?

Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson's book The Whole-Brain Child gives strategies to help children do this. I think it could be helpful to you in helping your daughter process her various upsets constructively. She's only seven, so intervening now should be very effective.

 

This may sound like a lot of work, and it is. But every child has different strengths and weaknesses. It sounds like your daughter has many strengths, but needs help to develop the resilient, optimistic, self-regulating capabilities she needs to thrive. Luckily, she has a mom who is obviously perceptive, loving and very committed to her emotional development. 

 

 

 

 


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