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My Daughter is Too Sensitive

By Dr. Joseph Gianesin, Behavioral Consultant

Question:

My daughter seems to be so sensitive to correction. If she did not pick up her clothes or missed a word on her spelling test, she retreats into herself and no one can break through for at least an hour. And when we do, it's because we had to praise her on something else or just pretend that it never happened. How can I help her become more laid back? She seems too young to be concerned about nothing.

Answer:

From your description, your daughter wants to do everything perfectly, and when things don't go right, she becomes morose, gloomy and isolates herself. Your response is to praise her or pretend it didn't happen. From a behaviorist point of view, this is a learned behavior. The sequence goes something like this: daughter makes a mistake, feels bad about it, retreats, then her mother or significant other praises her or ignores the mistake. In a sense, you are rewarding her morose reaction to the mistake. The best way to teach a child a new way of resolving an issue that makes her feel bad is to model how adults handle the problem of making a mistake, and help shape her behavior to a more acceptable reaction. She will need to learn this at some point because, as you well know, we all make mistakes throughout our lives.

Here are my suggestions: First, make a point of playing games with her to teach her the lessons of life. The best game for creating frustration and mistakes is the game of Sorry. I like this game because no matter how good a player you are, there will come a point in the game where you will be sent back home to start over. I use this opportunity to "think out loud" with kids. I might say something like, "I was so close to winning, but I think I can handle having to start over. I'll just keep trying." This sounds pretty corny but children are always watching how adults handle their own frustrations. If you make a mistake in life that she can understand, talk with her about how you handle it. Hopefully, you don't retreat and isolate yourself when that happens.

Second, shaping your daughter's behavior has to do with ignoring her morose attitude but praising her when she handles a mistake in a positive manner. Verbally praise her and give her a hug or a high five. This shows her your approval even when things didn't go as expected.


Dr. Joseph Gianesin is a professor at Springfield College School of Social Work. He has more than 25 years of experience as a child and family therapist, a school social worker and a school administrator. Along with his academic appointment, Dr. Gianesin is a program and behavioral consultant for public schools in Massachusetts, helping them develop and manage programs for children with significant mental health problems.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

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