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7 Year Old- Negative Thinking, Complaining, Arguing

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Dr Laura,

I know that my daughter's attention and emotional well being seem to fluctuate more than some other people and that she is very sensitive to what she perceives others to be thinking about her. Also extremely verbal. (7 years old). Her shyness can also come across as rudeness or being less happy than she truly is.

Being so verbal and having strong opinions, she has long thought that a well-articulated opinion (or just her mood) should sway decisions even after they've been made. I know I've played into this, but have been working on natural consequences to things like arguments, negotiating, etc (basically, trying to have it where when these things happen, the subject is immediately closed).

However, tonight was beyond ordinary. Rather than going into details (which I will if helpful later), suffice it to say that there were about 4 steps (things she wanted tonight, including a bath, piano practice, 'rag curls' and a story) that she complained about, lost because of the complaint, and then argued and cried incessantly about each one because she actually wanted each and "I didn't mean to say it that way."

I'm trying to help her see that her auto-complaint mode actually has an effect on other people, and that negotiating and having a fit simply won't work.

Here's my worry. I know that the above has happened to others and that it seems like yet another spoiled kid trying to have fits to get her way, with mom who just needs to walk away.

However, I'm finding myself shocked that she suddenly lashed out with "why do you do this to me? how can you ruin all of these things? i can't trust say yes, but then say no." etc., etc. Serious anger.

I'm not going to argue, and she's not able to hear when she's crying and moaning anyway. I was simply staying with her, trying to be quiet, and definitely being calm. But then she said------"I hate it here. I hate this world. I wish I would just be wiped out."

And these aren't idle words...I do see tendencies for her to pick up the negative when there is a more positive way to see things, and she comes by this somewhat naturally with her dad and sometimes with me.

But now I"m worried about real depression. On paper, this looks like a smart kid playing her mom, maybe. To me, it looks real and terrifying. This went on for an hour; when she wasn't crying and saying "please, please please," or saying what I just described, she was looking at me with such anger and pointing her finger at me and accusing me of being terrible.

I worry now that

1) my daughter needs emotional help for emerging depression,

2) she absolutely cannot see that she played any role in the results of not getting what she wanted to do, and

3) I've done an extremely crappy job if she's nearly 8 and still believes that tantrums or arguments are going to get her anywhere.

Clearly, I've let it work or something...or at least engaged in the argument.

The other info you might need is that she often considers herself to be without friends, although she has many and is often at the center of play. She sees negative intent in what others do far more often than is real. She is not someone who you would think of as comfortable in their own skin (can be awkward at times), but is then a shining star in the ballet show she was chosen to do for a school talent show (for example). 

Any thoughts on a direction to take would be most welcome, even if it's something I don't want to hear. I think my husband thinks I'm being played, but I think he had a crummy parenting model in his parents, so I can't really rely on that. And others have commented that she does take a negative view of things. It isn't non-stop, but it is present.

Please help. I am becoming increasingly worried about her. I remember my very confident, happy 2-3 year old and wonder where I stopped giving her what she needed to be the person she was actually born to be, instead of this negative, hypersensitive and sometimes very angry 7 year old.


Yes, you have reason to be concerned. Your daughter is not happy. She does not feel listened to. She has some big feelings that are getting in her way. Yes, she is seeing the glass as half empty, and that may be an inherited tendency. But luckily there are ways to parent that can teach her to work with this tendency.

I understand that you don't want to reward arguing, but the strategy of her automatically losing what she wants if she complains or argues is clearly not working to teach her not to complain. Instead, it is making her feel hopeless and enraged. That's what you're sensing, and naturally, that worries you.

That approach is essentially a behavior mod approach. It isn't working because your daughter can't manage the emotions that are driving her to complain. Since she is not getting any help with those feelings, she complains, and then loses what she wants. So there is no way for her to "win" -- she is trapped. Which is why she's now feeling helpless and hopeless, not to mention very much alone. If this continues, she will indeed look for ways out of her trap that would not be what any of us would want.

I suggest that you approach this a bit differently. Specifically, I suggest that you listen to your daughter's complaints. Recognize that your daughter is complaining because nothing seems quite right to her. She needs to be able to express those feelings and feel heard, and she will feel happier inside her own skin. In addition, you can help her to notice and manage her negative thinking, and I think you'll find her much more able to manage her behavior.

Luckily, she is still young enough that she will cry with you, right? Instead of seeing that as a negative thing, try welcoming her tears. Hold her in your arms. Tell her that you see how sad she is, what big feelings she needs to let out. Everyone needs to cry sometimes, and you will stay right there and hold her and keep her safe.

It sounds like she did cry with you on the evening you're describing, but she went back and forth into rage. Rage is a defense against feeling sad, or, most commonly, frightened. I think your daughter was enraged because she saw you as the source of the trap she was in. But I am also betting that this was not a one-time occurrence. To feel so desperate, she has probably experienced this before.

When she erupts at you in anger, stay calm and kind. Look her in the eye, which will bring her back to the more vulnerable fear that she's fighting down. Be open to listening to her anger. "You think I am being mean. Tell me more." If she attacks you verbally, take a deep breath and remember that she is just trying to keep that fear under wraps, and the best defense is a good offense. If you stay calm and kind and signal that she can trust you to keep her and you safe, she will eventually dissolve into fear.

When kids vent fear, they tremble, sweat, get red-faced, thrash around, and often cry without tears. If she does this, just tell her that she's safe now, you're with her, you will always keep her safe. Don't talk too much, or it will shift her from emotion to thinking and push the feelings back down. Throughout all of this, keep breathing and stay as calm as you can. This is the hard part for most parents.

Why is it worth it to endure such a "tantrum" from your 7 year old? Because afterwards she will be a different child. You will see her at her most positive, I suspect. She may need to do this a few times to begin to feel better inside her own skin. And she might need to "try it" a few times, with her upset getting bigger each time, to be sure she can really trust you. But this will make a tremendous difference in her anxiety level. Why? Because fear is anxiety.

So will this solve everything? Maybe. Your daughter may have a tendency to anxiety or depression that is innate, but if you give her help with her emotions, the degree to which a tendency manifests can be limited.

What I am describing is basically a therapeutic approach to emotions. However, most of the time children will not trust therapists with their emotions enough to do what I am describing. This is something she needs you for.

For more info on this approach, here's an article from my website: What About Those Days When He's Hellbent on Misbehaving?

Now, is helping her with her emotions sufficient? I don't think so. She is showing us that her mind is seeing things negatively. Whether that is a result of negative emotions or of some innate tendency to see the world pessimistically, we don't know. I wouldn't blame yourself. Instead, I would help her to notice and manage her mind. After all, it is our thoughts that give rise to our feelings. So if your daughter is perceiving the glass as half empty, she will feel angry. If she can take a more mature view that every situation has both good and bad in it, then she can have more balanced feelings.

We can definitely help kids learn to perceive the world with more optimism, and here is an article on how to do that:

How to Help Your Child Become an Optimist

I would also recommend Tamar Chansky's book Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility, and Happiness

Finally, I would like to suggest that you try to reframe the way you see your daughter. I understand her behavior is aggravating. But she is who she is and she is trying the best she can. For you to help her emotionally and with her perceptions, she needs to feel your unconditional love. Here's an article on Working with Your Child's Temperament that might be helpful to you. And of course, Special Time with her every day to strengthen your relationship is a must. If you can figure out ways to get her giggling during that time, it will help you connect AND help her let off some of the feelings she would otherwise need to cry about.

So this is a four-pronged approach:

1. Help her with emotions.

2. Help her manage her mind and perceptions.

3. Reframe your own attitude so you can better support her.

4. Strengthen your relationship with her.

I think you'll find it transformative. Please let me know what happens. And enjoy your daughter!

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of three best-selling books

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