Positive attention for an unpleasant child

This question and answer article in the Washington Post really makes you think!

Middle Child is a Pain. She doesn't have to be...
by Meghan Leahy, Parenting Expert, Washington Post
Our 6-year-old daughter is consistently grumpy (sour or contrary are also words we use to describe her behavior). She is a middle child. She is less adaptable than the other two, who have much more pleasant dispositions. So our 6-year-old will growl, whine, melt down and stomp frequently through the day. It is extremely difficult to react with warmth instead of frustration because it feels like she brings us all down. Family meals, outings, simple drives to complete errands, they can all be shut down with her mood. I've been thinking of consulting a social worker. But in the meantime, how does a parent react with compassion in order to foster a connection when all we really want to do is show her that her behavior is unacceptable and should not have to be tolerated? She is a sensitive, smart soul. We want her to feel loved for who she is, but she is a prickly pear much of the time.
I was walking my dog the other day, thinking of this letter. I was thinking about your 6-year-old when a gust of wind came and took my breath away. I glanced up at the trees and noticed the beautiful sunlight. The branches were bare and reaching for the sky. Even without their leaves, they seemed to want to drink in the sunlight.
I reflected on your 6-year-old as I stared at the trees and was reminded of two messages that my great teachers have taught me: Living things move toward the light, and what you pay attention to grows.
From the scrawniest plant in the crack of the city sidewalk to the neural synapses firing in your brain at this very moment, everything in nature is changing, growing, maturing.
But the conditions are not always optimal, are they? That tree growing in the sidewalk? Not growing to its fullest potential, is it? It is doing its best, but the conditions are rough.
Let's look at your 6-year-old similarly.
I don't know how old the other two children are, but my first suggestion here is to let go of any "middle child" thinking.
There is some interesting writing around birth order. You can read lots of articles about first and last born children, as well as those poor, poor middle children.
I don't think your daughter is behaving like this because she is in the middle. I think she is doing the best she can in conditions that are not working for her. How she acts gets her a certain level of attention, and she repeats it because she is too young and immature to understand that she can behave in any other way.
She may have a temperament that is different from her siblings. Maybe she is more sensitive, maybe she is more cautious, maybe she is less "sunny," maybe she is shyer than the other family members.
Whatever the case, she is attracting all of the negative attention in the family, and it is time to take a hard look at that.
The average 6-year-old is just at the beginning of being able to show emotional maturity. Her brain is only at the beginning of being able to hold conflicting thoughts at the same time. For some children, this kind of maturity can come pretty early. For some children, it can come later.
But the more time your daughter spends being "surly," the more she is not maturing. A human cannot be miserable and surly and angry and whine and melt down and grow and mature at the same time. Her discomfort is probably not coming because you are holding boundaries and she doesn't like them. Her meltdowns and surliness are an inconvenient language, calling out to you, "Hey, I am me! I am a good kid. See me."
A 6-year-old brain can't pep-talk itself. As in, "Hey, stop these shenanigans. Don't you see how happy your family is? Knock this off. Be kinder. Be more like them."
She is doing the best she can in conditions that are shining little light on anything good.
So, what can you do to make this better?
You are going to suspend reality and begin to treat your daughter like she is a great kid.
First, make lists (for yourself) of everything you love about her. Write something new every day. From the little freckle on her nose to her sense of humour to the way she drinks her chocolate milk. Cultivate unconditional positive regard toward her. Love her for who she is, right now. Accept that she is not her siblings. Accept that her behaviour is a reflection of an emotional need that has not yet been met.
Additionally, it's important to not force her to "cheer up," or "be less of a prickly pear." Rather, see who she is with equanimity and don't view her behaviour as a personal attack on the family.
I am guessing her brain is pretty strongly wired to start the whining as if on cue, right? The great news with young brains is that they can change - and fast. How quickly she changes will be in direct proportion to how fast you can change.
If this has been going on a long while, be prepared for resistance to your love and attention.
Her brain may reject this new way and, yes, brains can be more comfortable in negative old patterns.
She may seem to test you.
She may seem to reject your offers of warmth and love.
This is not a sign of failure.
This is you, sticking it out, finding another way to connect to her.
Have as much one-on-one time with her as you can, making her voice important and heard in the house in a positive way, which is a role she is not presently accustomed to.
Another way to help with resistance is to listen strongly and reflect her feelings back to her. If she is whiny, go ahead and agree with her. "Yes, it is hard to go out when we are tired." Or "I get why you are in a bad mood." Just see if being kindly quiet and offering a hug, a back rub or a smile can help. None of this will be perfect, but it opens up room for her to start to relax and feel accepted.
It may be hard to find your soft heart for her, and it may be tiring, overwhelming and frustrating. Don't give up and don't be afraid to ask for support.
By Meghan Leahy
Washington Post


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