Dear Dr. Debbie,
My nine-year-old daughter does not have many friends. We have lived in the same house since she was a year old and she has had Girl Scouts and other activities with other children from her school but only if I push it, does she want to invite anyone to come over or to go somewhere with us. She likes to take charge, doesn’t easily share, and despite being able to have other children do as she says, she often seems unhappy when she’s around them. She’s not a behavior problem in the sense that she generally complies with adults and does fine with school. By the way, she has two younger brothers and mostly ignores them.
Can we help her to be more friendly or is this just the way she is always going to be?
She May Be Fine, But I’m Not
Don’t miss last week’s column First birthday — Good Parenting
Maybe and maybe. There are social behaviors that can be attributed to temperament differences. And there are interventions that can help a child to interact better with other children.
It’s in the Genes
Temperament Theory, as outlined in the classic work of Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, gives us insight into why a child is more friendly or less friendly. According to multigenerational research in this area, behavior patterns evident in infants and persistent through a lifetime fall into nine trait areas, with an individual being low, middle, or high on each trait. Just like eye color, our ancestors’ behavioral traits can be passed down to future generations. Current research has linked a specific gene variation with sociability. Temperament theory and research on corresponding DNA markers back up the hunch that many behavior patterns are “just the way she was made.” In your daughter’s case, a trait of “Negative Mood” could explain your observations of her being unhappy around other children. This could also explain why she seems to need things to go her way. A child with a negative mood can appear to be bossy and selfish. She may be more compliant with adults because it is very easy for her to imagine the negative consequence if she doesn’t comply.
The few friends who tolerate your daughter acting the way she does are friends indeed. They may appreciate other attributes she possesses, and or they may enjoy playing the counterpart of being compassionate and indulgent when they are with her. Likely she will always have a small group of friends who feel good about making sure her needs are met.
Practicing Social Graces
Just the same, you can help your daughter behave “better” so that she has an easier, and maybe even more enjoyable time with others. Each of these suggestions can be proposed as a quick game in the car, at the table, or any time you are alone together.
- Take turns telling each other about a recent experience. The listener has to ask three related questions about the experience and give one (empathic) related opinion or similar experience.
- Sing or make up songs that require words, lines, or verses to be added. “Down By the Bay” requires an animal and a rhyme for each verse, as in “Did you ever see a horse on a golf course?” For more of a challenge, change the sailors’ chanty “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?” to “What Do You Do With a Toasted Bagel?” and take turns dressing up your (imaginary) bagels. Find more songs that let each person have a turn to put in the next idea.
- Take turns giving each other two directions at a time. This could be while you are doing chores together around the house, or as silly physical challenges. For example, “Pat your head and rub your belly.”
- Use a timer to impose a limit on having the other person wait. You might share drawing an abstract picture together with a 10-second time limit for each person’s addition. Or play a two-person game such as Mancala or Dots and Boxes with a 1-minute limit for each turn. The person waiting can watch a clock or set the timer on your cell phone.
- Use puppets or role play to show various ways to play out a scene. This is a good way for you to model more sociable behavior so your daughter can imitate your examples in real life. An example could be getting on the school bus and finding only one empty seat. What do you say to the child sitting next to the empty spot? Similarly, you can be a “bad” example and let her see how the scene could end unhappily. Always end with a positive example.
It is possible that your daughter’s interactions with other children could be improved with counseling. She may need an outsider to help her explore her feelings about being with other children. Counseling can help her reflect on how her behavior is perceived by others. She can confide her experiences of situations in which sharing and turn taking have been difficult. The counselor can help her figure out the benefit of friends and friendships while acknowledging her relative ease in dealing with adults. Your daughter also seems to have leadership potential, by your report that despite her need to take charge, she yet has a few followers. Good leadership can be honed through counseling, perhaps by role playing friendlier ways of directing the actions of others.
Other issues may be causing her to act indifferently toward the needs of others. She might have lingering jealousy over one or more of her siblings. She could have low self-esteem which drives her to push others away before they can push her away. She may think her home and her family are embarrassing for some reason. Or the opposite may be true, that she believes that she is superior to her peers. A counselor can help determine if your daughter has a mild form of autism, in which case she doesn’t much care for playmates since they’re a distraction from an inner world that is already rich. There could be many causes for being unhappy around other children, some of which are in her own control and others which might need support from you.
It may just be that the ideal friend has yet to cross her path. Widening her social circle through a new after school activity could be the answer.
Counseling is a way for your daughter to focus on herself, her needs, her strengths, and the obstacles impeding her goals. If enjoying time with friends is a goal, the counselor will help her try out new strategies and evaluate their effectiveness.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.