What can you do when your child feels ignored?

My 11 year old feels like the black sheep in the family. She is a very kind and caring person deep down, but displays signs of animosity toward her siblings. She is always on the lookout for unfairness. She often says, "Everyone in this family hates me." I get upset and lose my cool because it happens time and time again. What can I do?

Question:

It is so important that you can see that your child's current behavior is not a true indicator of the kind of person she is. Holding that vision of her as a caring person will help both of you get through this difficult time.

There are many complex reasons why some children feel "one down" from everyone else. One is temperament. Children who are very sensitive, or who are perfectionists, tend to be more self-critical than other children. Often these children think that the world is being critical of them and will scream at a parent who is speaking to them in a firm voice, "Don't yell at me!" Children who are experiencing feelings of inadequacy often wonder if they are likable and consequently assume that "everyone hates me."

There are also periods in children's development when they feel more vulnerable. When kids make a leap in their cognitive or physical growth, their confidence can be shaken as they reach for goals they haven't yet achieved. During these times, children may say things like "I'm not good at anything," or "Nobody likes me." Another developmental factor has to do with children's sense of "fairness." It sometimes takes until their teen years (or even later) for kids to understand that fair is not always equal. Children who look at a sibling with a new bike can easily forget that the family just spent the weekend away at their skating tournament.

A child's experience in school or with peers can also affect her sense of confidence. If children are feeling pressure, rejection or failure in school or with peers, they will often play out the feeling in the safety of home or family. When your child is showing signs of distress at home, it is important to look at her outside experiences, as well as her family life for the sources of her stress.

Often, dynamics develop in families which aren't healthy or useful. Once they get started, these patterns of relating can become entrenched and are often difficult to change without thoughtful attention. A child who is feeling vulnerable (for any number of reasons) may blurt out, "Everyone in this family hates me." The response they get to this statement may be so powerful that the child is driven to test it again and again.

Part of your task is figuring out what constellation of reasons may be underneath your daughter's behavior. Here are some things to think about as you work to resolve this situation in your family:

  • Try to listen to what your daughter is saying. Sometimes we react so strongly to our children's words that we forget to listen to what they are really saying. Children tell us how they are feeling the best way they know how, but, they are not yet experts on identifying or expressing their feelings. When your child says, "Everybody hates me," we can likely interpret that she is saying, "I feel bad." If we respond to the latter statement, we may get closer to understanding what is going on with her.
  • Ask questions to get more information. While our immediate response is often to defend ourselves or reassure our daughter, what we really need is more information so we can know what she is really talking about. Open-ended questions such as, "Tell me more," or "How do you feel about that?" or, "can you help me understand more about what is going on with you?" will help your daughter do some introspection, which may offer some clues as to the underlying reasons.
  • Ask for her input for solutions. When she says, "Everybody hates me," it turns the attention to you to come up with a solution. It can be very validating for children to simply ask them what would help them feel better. After some outrageous first answers, children can often come up with workable solutions. "
  • Turn parental guilt into action. Children pickup on our feelings of guilt (which most of us experience at least periodically) and keep pushing on those buttons to explore our responses. When our children tell us that we are not doing enough for them, and we feel guilty about it, we may take all the blame on ourselves, missing other factors which may be contributing to their upset. If we can learn to use guilty feelings as a gentle reminder, rather than a dunce cap, we can take action to make some of the changes we've been wanting to make, while at the same time keeping our eyes open to other causes of our children's distress.
  • Beware of labels. It is important to avoid labeling our children, either out loud (to them or others) or quietly to ourselves. Labels limit our ability to see children as full and complex people, can lock children into particular identities and are usually misleading. For instance, the commonly used label, "black sheep," misses the beauty of the color black and implies that there is something wrong with being different.
  • Help to build strong sibling relationships. Helping our children build solid, supportive and nurturing relationships with each other is one of our most important and challenging jobs as parents. The problem solving and communication skills learned with siblings can serve children for a lifetime.

We can help children to do their own conflict resolution by staying close and helping with communication, but not taking sides. We can provide opportunities for children to work cooperatively and we can hold the vision that siblings are important resources to each other over the long haul.

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