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"My Daughter's Too Serious"

Q. My 10-year old has a hard time making friends. She is a very serious child who acts mature for her age, even though she's the youngest child in her class. She enjoys being in Girl Scouts, Awana, and many other activities, but she doesn't seem to connect with the other children. They try to get her involved, but she tends to hang back. She doesn't smile and she gets easily frustrated. I really don't know how to help her if she won't help herself.

A. Your daughter does sound very serious for a child her age. She also sounds pretty tense. Could she be over-scheduled? Our culture pushes families to be so frenetic with activity. It could be that your daughter is doing too much and therefore feels too overwhelmed or exhausted to enjoy her activities. If this is the case, have her choose the two activities she most wants to be involved with, then cut out the others. Help her find time each day for quiet play so she can rest mentally and physically.

It is best if this time is not spent in front of the television—studies show that even though kids seem to "veg out" in front of the TV, their brains are being hyper-stimulated by all the color and sound. Instead, have her read, work on puzzles, or do an art project. If she seems restless, go for a walk or a bike ride together.

You might also want to add more fun to your family life. Encourage spontaneous family time by getting everyone together for bowling, roller blading, biking, hiking, or board games. This extra bonding time can be relaxing for your daughter, but it can also give her more confidence in her ability to talk and play with others.

If you have other children, I would also suggest watching the way your daughter interacts with them. Sibling relationships often serve as a testing ground for developing social skills. If your daughter has a hard time relating to her siblings, she may be unsure of how to approach her peers.

Even if she is an only child, try role playing a few social settings with your daughter so that she can get ideas for meeting new people or joining a group of peers. Have her practice initiating a conversation, asking friendly questions, and showing interest in what someone says or does. Praise her for the things she does well, and check in with her after an activity where she's had the chance to try out her new skills.

If none of these suggestions seem to help, your daughter could be experiencing a childhood depression. Irritability and the flat expression you mentioned are two characteristics of depression and could signal a need for professional help. Ask your daughter how she has been feeling lately, what she is enjoying about her life, what she is struggling with. Ask her how she feels about her friendships.

If she says she doesn't need close friends, take that as a sign that there is something deeper going on. Children her age need to have one or more close friends and it is unusual for a 10-year-old to resist relationships. If her answers concern you, have her assessed by a professional Christian counselor who can check her for depression and help her develop more appropriate social skills.

"My Son Hits"

Q. My 3-year-old son hits other children at his playgroup and at the park. I can't seem to figure out what's causing his behavior. He can be playing nicely and all of a sudden I see a child crying and my son hanging his head. Sometimes he'll apologize and look genuinely sorry. Other times, he seems not to care. I even dropped out of my mothers' group because of his behavior in the children's room. This is stressing me out, and I don't know what to do.

A. This is a common, albeit frustrating, problem for preschoolers. But there are ways you can help your son control his behavior:

Check in on his sugar intake. Is he eating sugary cereal or snacks before or during his playtime? Are there other foods that seem to trigger behavior problems for him? If you see a pattern between what he's eating and how he's acting, talk with your doctor.

Help him develop some impulse control strategies. Teach him to count to ten in his head when he feels angry or pound on a pillow when he's frustrated. This is also a good age for him to learn how to walk away from a situation he doesn't like, how to solve problems with other kids, and how to share and take turns.

Talk about anger. One of the biggest mistakes parents make is telling their children not to get angry, rather than giving children the tools to handle their anger in a productive way. Tell your son that God gave him his feelings and that it's okay to get angry. Then encourage him to use words, not his hands, to express his anger.

Give consistent consequences. Hitting other children is unacceptable and your son needs to know this is an absolute rule with no exceptions. As soon as your son hits another child, give him a three-minute time out (one minute for each year of his age). Then walk him over to the other child so he can apologize. Have him make eye contact as say something simple such as, "I'm sorry I hit you, are you okay?"

Keep a log. When your son hits, jot a quick note about what happened right before and after the event. What situations provoke your son? What situations does he seem to handle well? Be proactive about preventing the situations that trigger his actions and be ready to intervene when you sense trouble brewing.

Go back to your mother's group. Talk to the leader about your concerns and tell her what you're doing to change your son's behavior. Ask for her advice, support, and prayers. Avoiding activities will not help your son develop self-control, and it could cause you to resent him for the control he has over your life.

Harsh Husband

Q. My husband seems to have a lot to learn when it comes to parenting and discipline. We've been married for two years, and we have a 17-month-old as well as two children from my previous marriage. He's great with the baby because they can just play together, but he's quick to say no when the older kids ask for something. He seems to expect too much from them for their ages and picks on them when they don't measure up. He even teases my 9-year-old about his fear of bugs. My children are losing the affection they used to have for him. How can I talk to my husband about this?

A. I agree that a meaningful conversation with your husband could be the beginning of a solution. But he will likely feel defensive when you talk to him about this, so you'll need to think very carefully about what you want to talk about. Take some time before your conversation to answer these questions:

  • What are your specific expectations for your husband as he parents each of your older children? What kind of input is welcomed and helpful? What is absolutely unacceptable to you?

  • What are some things your husband is doing for or with the children that you appreciate?

  • What parenting resources have you found helpful that you can recommend to him?

What do your older children want their relationship with their stepfather to be like? I'd suggest talking one on one with each child to find out what they think could help the relationship grow. Write down their responses and share them with your husband when you talk with him. (Reframe their requests if they are too negative).

One caution: Your children need to understand that you are asking for their input so that you can help them get along better with their stepfather. You don't want to give the impression that the three of you are on one team and your husband is the enemy. Simply say, "I know that you and Dad have been having a hard time lately. What do you think Dad and I can do to help make your relationship better?"

Once you've thought through what you want to say, ask your husband to join you for coffee and dessert after the kids are asleep. Start with a prayer asking God to help you both learn how to be the parents he wants you to be. Then tell your husband about your concerns, emphasizing your desire to help your family grow closer. Let him know the changes you've seen in your children and tell him that you want to tackle the problem together.

Ask your husband what his own father did that he appreciated and that helped him grow as a man. Ask him about the ways his mother helped him feel loved and secure. Help him brainstorm ways he can show that kind of care and affection to all three children.

You should also consider developing deeper friendships with families you admire in your church. As your husband sees other fathers in action, he will learn more about what healthy fathering looks like.

Your husband will probably never parent exactly like you do. Do your best to let him express love in his own unique ways, as long as they are not harmful to your children. For example, most male-male relationships have a teasing component, so your husband may be trying to connect with your son through his teasing. But he might also be unaware of how his words are impacting your child. Gently point out your son's sensitivity and work with your husband to find productive ways to help your son deal with his fears.

Finally, encourage your husband to spend time doing something fun with each of your older children. The more time he spends getting to know them, the more he'll understand what they need from him as a stepfather.

Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is the mother of two and a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is the author of Sticks and Stones (W).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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