How do I help my smart, shy 9 year old daughter with issues related to body image, bullying, and (possibly) depression?
June 5, 2012 12:13 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are trying to help our oldest child with some issues that have been around for a while, but have intensified this year.

Background: She's a super smart, shy kid. Loves books and will read for pleasure to the exclusion of almost everything else in the world. Reads at a high school level, anything we will let her read (and a few books we won't.) Has a few close friends at home and at school, and these girls are her lifeline, but otherwise she does not make new friends easily. Attends a school for the gifted & talented - good student, obedient to the teachers, often defiant to her parents.

Mornings are difficult - she's grouchy, angry, defiant. I remember this from my childhood. For me it was a combination of sleep deprivation and depression. There's a family history of mental illness on my side, my mother has untreated phobias and OCD, and I have chronic low level depression that I treat with medication.

She may have some body image issues - she's slim and IMHO quite pretty, but prefers loose fitting clothing so it doesn't show her body. Has trouble adjusting to new things: new clothes, haircut, new toys, anything except new books, basically. "Fear of the new."

This year she has had some trouble with a bully in class (a "mean girl"). We've gone to the teacher and the administration with mixed results. I'm concerned that she does not stick up for herself - not in terms of fighting, but in terms of advocating for herself and letting the teachers know when something is not right. She is anti-snitching to the extreme and will not tell a teacher when she is being bullied.

She has a very negative opinion of psychiatrists - we took her to a child psychiatrist when she was 4 at the urging of her pre-K teachers to help her deal with her shyness. She had a positive experience at the time, although it didn't really do much for her shyness. Since then (possibly due to the influence of some of the books she has been reading.) she attaches a stigma to psychiatrists and the school guidance counselor. I'm not sure if therapy could help her, nor do I know if she would open up to a therapist about her issues given time and space to do so.

I look at her and I see parts of my childhood being repeated - but more intensely. It's as if she's experiencing the alienation of my middle school years, but she's only in elementary school. It's a little scary to think about.

Any suggestions for how we can help her? We are in New York City.
posted by dudeman to Human Relations (54 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Have you read the book The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz? It sounds like there might be some stuff in there that is relevant to your daughter's issues.

Something to think about with the "loose fitting clothing" preference might be that she is resistant to being sexualized at her young age. Especially if she is reading way above her age level, she may be taking away the message that wearing certain types of clothing is going to be interpreted by others as courting sexual interest. Sadly, this is not unreasonable paranoia even in a child your daughter's age.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:22 PM on June 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

Could you get her some books on these topics? Novels about preteen social drama might make her feel less alone, and maybe some self help assertiveness tips for kids might partly sub in for the therapy you think she'd reject.
posted by feets at 12:23 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you please clarify how old your daughter is? And what grade she's going to be in next year?
posted by DarlingBri at 12:24 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've read a few books on anxiety for adults and kids; currently working through "I bet I won't fret" for a younger (maturity, not age) child with similar issues.

You might ask her what she thinks of psychiatrists, and work through what the negatives are. It might be that a psychologist might be a better fit. It might be less needing therapy than counselling.

Part of our mean girl issues were solved by moving the kids to different classes, and giving our kid more tools to handle friendship (I'm currently pre-reading a book on the "secret rules of friendship" or something like that - sorry I have like a dozen books I'm currently reading on a variety of topics and they aren't all e-books or handy).

Our school has been very proactive in addition to all this. There was a "friendship club" in second grade which was a round table "play group" with the school counselor to work on friendships and feelings. For third grade, the counselor came to the class once a week and they did "what I like about me" and "what are my favorite type of stories" and "let's read a story and then write an ending from the character's perspective".

Outside of school, aside from promoting positive friendships, are adding activities, a sport (martial arts, swim). Summers are spent at a local community "camp" but it is large enough to offer different programs for the kids to experience with different friends - dance, acting, cooking, swimming, etc. Also, with moving to fourth grade, there are more school-based activities the kid can join at our school, safety patrol, model un, science club, etc.

As for dressing, I agree with Sidhedevil on rebelling against sexualization at an early age. I just got handed the "dress code" for summer camp, and it includes no Speedos, bikinis, bare midriffs, tank tops, or short shorts, with measurements for all examples (shirt shoulders must be three adult-sized fingers wide in the case of sleeveless shirts).

There are also some teen-anxiety work books you might try to go through; I saw them when I picked up the "what's happening to my body" book last weekend, though I skipped them for now. She might be paranoid about impending puberty, too. I remember girls who "weren't allowed" to wear training bras and some who refused and she might be concerned about where she stands/will stand. That was more fourth/fifth grade for me, though.
posted by tilde at 12:26 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was your daughter.

Honestly, the fact that she does have a couple close friends is a good sign. Not a lot, but honestly, only two or three is better than nothing. So I'd rest easy about that.

As for how to handle the bullying -- well, you are handling it different than my own parents did, which is good right there. But I wouldn't be so sure that jumping in would be the best thing to do either. I do know that I wished someone had stood up for me when bullies got to me - but the people I wished would stand up for me were other kids. If my parents had, I'd probably have just sighed and thought, "well, yeah, but they HAVE to do that, they're my parents."

The thing that I really and honestly most missed, though, which is something you can do, is to reinforce that she does not deserve to be treated the way this girl is treating her, and that the way this girl is treating her is not right. That it makes you upset on her behalf. In the absence of anyone telling me that, telling me that what the bullies were doing to me was not fair and was not anything I deserved, I instead felt that "wow, there must be something wrong with me for not being able to just shrug this off. I'm letting this get to me and I shouldn't, I must be the one with the problem." And sending me to a psychiatrist really would have underscored that. Just giving your daughter the message that "what that girl says about you is wrong and not fair, and you deserve much, much better than that," may work wonders right there. If she has that core belief in herself first, that she deserves better than what she's got, then she may find her own way to solve the problem.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:26 PM on June 5, 2012 [27 favorites]

I think that the best thing you can do for her is to find what she's into in terms of creating something, or putting something out into the world (is it writing? is it music? is it drawing? is it comedy?) and encourage the hell out of her. Having a family who is super supportive of what she loves doing will give her a framework for an inner strength that is bigger than being bullied or grumpy in the morning (for the record, I'm grumpy in the morning, it's not necessarily something to be 'fixed).

We're all conditioned by biology to love novelty, but fear change. This is part of being human. Having something core to herself, whatever it is, will give her something solid to grasp on to.

Don't try to fix her, she's not broken. she's a sensitive kid who doesn't like to cause a fuss or attract much attention. Lots of people are like that. Giving her (or helping her to identify) a passion (yes, even at 9), will help her have a thing she can rely on.
posted by softlord at 12:28 PM on June 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

the daughter is 9, according to the post title
posted by changeling at 12:29 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

As you work through all of these issues, make sure to get some basic bloodwork including iron, thyroid, vitamin D. At one point, I was 16 and severely anemic with low vitamin D. They can all play havoc with mood and energy.
posted by barnone at 12:30 PM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Does she play any sports? Getting comfortable with your body can be a challenge if you don't move your body. She might think about martial arts, which helps with concentration and can be very motivating for a girl who wants to be all kick-ass. Team sports, unconnected with school, can also be good, but you have to be on-board. I know Meta types are frequently not into athletics, but mastering a skill, and learning how to work with teammates is a very useful and empowering thing, especially for young women. I'm not as big on dance or skating which are more subjective than sports where scores are kept.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:31 PM on June 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

When I was younger, and to this day, I am a total grouch in the morning. In elementary school, at the age of 6, I got so mad at my parents, that I left for school by myself. In high school, I did not speak to my parents in the morning. Now I am nearly thirty, and I barely speak to my housemates before I get my morning coffee.

When I was younger, I also tended towards baggy clothes, mainly because if I wore baggy clothes or boys clothes, boys and MEN (MEN!!!!) wouldn't hit on me as much, a constant onslaught that is exhausting as a pre-pubescent, pubescent, and grown woman.

Your daughter probably does not have a "fear of the new" if she likes new books. New books are new ideas. Very few people can think critically and adjust to new ideas. I say that as a bookish person who has always been thirsty for more books, more books, more books. The other things you mention--clothes, haircuts, toys--are all things that can get tied up in identity. Maybe she has a very strong sense of self and doesn't like being asked to change these things? I certainly didn't / don't.

If she is the victim of bullying, it is not her responsibility to set limits for her bully. Bullies do not respect limits. That is why they are bullies.

Based on your post, I think you want her to be stronger than you feel like you were in your middle school years...but that isn't fair. She is trying to be herself.

More than anything, she probably needs you to be an advocate for who she is AS SHE IS. To this day, I feel like my parents did little to protect me growing up: from bullies, from sexual predators, from unhealthy environments. At this age, I have made peace with that. I am a very, very independent person. However, if I could go back in time and talk to my parents, I would try to tell them:

"There is nothing wrong with me. I will grow up to get two degrees, be financially independent, write books, start my own company. You have no idea. These things you are worried about are not problems with me, they are problems with a world that wants women to grow into sunny, smiling, pleasing adults. They are problems with a world where might is right and intellect and one's internal world are not as highly valued as what a person wears. Let me be different. Protect me from people who try to hurt me. Love me as I am. I will make you proud."
posted by whimsicalnymph at 12:34 PM on June 5, 2012 [20 favorites]

She is anti-snitching to the extreme and will not tell a teacher when she is being bullied.

In other words, she does not trust the school authorities to 1) believe her over the bullies and 2) be able to protect her from their retribution when they learn she has "snitched" on them.

Given the "mixed results" you have had with the school administration, this is a completely rational reaction. There is nothing to fix about her here.

Instead I would suggest that you suggest to the parents of the bully that she be sent to therapy. They won't do that, of course, but it might bring more scrutiny upon her, which could have beneficial effects on her behavior.
posted by kindall at 12:36 PM on June 5, 2012 [18 favorites]

As you work through all of these issues, make sure to get some basic bloodwork including iron, thyroid, vitamin D. At one point, I was 16 and severely anemic with low vitamin D. They can all play havoc with mood and energy.

And get her a sleep test! If she usually wakes up "grouchy and angry" this could be a sign of sleep apnea - which is NOT just a condition for middle-aged fat men - children and teenagers can have it. If she has sleep apnea, she is not getting refreshing sleep, which leads to morning grumpiness.

I have bipolar and if I don't get my good, refreshing sleep I am 1000% more a mess (socially, emotionally, mentally, physically) than I am if I am rested.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:37 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think part of the negativity towards psychiatrists stems from growing perfectionism - basically a fear of other people telling you that you're doing it wrong, coupled with a desire to figure things out for yourself to prove that you're exceptional. I think it's pretty common for gifted kids to get caught in this loop. They're told so often that they're bright that it becomes their identity. Anything that threatens that identity is really scary. Change is hard, because they are busy overthinking what their reactions to the new stimulus should be and judging themselves for it, instead of experiencing it naturally. It creates pressure.

I don't have kids - I have no experience with how to handle this in a kid - but I can totally see how this played out in myself and I wish I had been more mentally flexible at a younger age, and more accepting of my "mistakes" and "failures". I had some ugly depression around age 11/12 because of a dip in my academic performance that was way harder to deal with than it should have been.

You might do some research on obsessive compulsive personality disorder - even though she's way too young to be diagnosed, the traits may be similar and from what I've read, gifted kids are prone to displaying similar behavior.
posted by griselda at 12:38 PM on June 5, 2012

"New books are new ideas" - agreed, a safe way to explore them. But she also needs tools on dealing with life when it's not exactly like the books. We've used books as a spring point for talking about real world situations and why it's not always alike.

As a kid, I was not much for trusting adults, especially when their help didn't help.

nthing on the blood work and sleep test. With explainations - put it as part of her yearly check up (early if needed) and a going over to make sure she's getting enough sleep/vitamins not in the "you;re broken " way.
posted by tilde at 12:38 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

In other words, she does not trust the school authorities to 1) believe her over the bullies and 2) be able to protect her from their retribution when they learn she has "snitched" on them.

Yes. Keep in mind that teachers and administrators and guidance counselors can also be bullies, or take the side of bullies.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:43 PM on June 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

She's grouchy in the morning. Is there any way you and she can get some vigorous exercise first thing in the morning, a walk or a run? Others will probably hate this idea, but have you considered letting her have a cup of coffee in the morning? I lived in France when I was a kid and French kids all drank cafe-au-lait from a very early age.
posted by mareli at 12:44 PM on June 5, 2012

I was bullied in elementary school, and I think I can explain you daughter's tattle-adverse attitude. As EmpressCallipygos said above, as a bullied kid the dream is for your peers to speak out for you, not your teacher or your parent. Telling is stigmatized in kid world, and she probably feels that if she tells, she will lose face with her peers. Teachers stepping in can be really helpful in a bullying situation, but having been there I really think it needs to be spontaneous from the teacher or orchestrated by parents or something. Any hint of 'Suzy told me you weren't nice to her' is likely to ruin the effect.

So I think at least on that one, her instincts are right on. The most helpful thing you can do is probably to work with her on not showing reactions to bullies. Not biting is really the most effective way to respond; it's no fun to bully someone who doesn't care what you think. Reinforce her self-confidence, talk to her about how much more awesome she is than the mean girls, and therefore how little she needs to care about them.
posted by snorkmaiden at 12:44 PM on June 5, 2012

Oh, yes, now I see she's 9 from the post title. At 9 I was already going through puberty, FWIW, and excruciatingly self-concious about my body. The less of a big deal people made about my discomfort the easier things were for me. A lot of what you're describing sounds like a child with a couple of issues that are naturally exacerbated by puberty; it's just that we typically see that behaviour a little later, and associate it with the teen years.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:46 PM on June 5, 2012

And it can take a long time to get there, but I have to say that thinking 'well, fuck you too' and ignoring mean people became one of my great joys in life once I got the hang of it. Substitute 9 year old appropriate language as necessary.
posted by snorkmaiden at 12:48 PM on June 5, 2012

I was also very much like your daughter. You probably know this already, but in case you need to hear it: She is not you. If you don't do this already, one of the best things you can do for her is to show her that you see her as her own person. Show her that you are curious about her reasons for doing things instead of making assumptions about them. Really listen to her and learn about her life. You could also teach her what her rights are and practice assertiveness with her. i.e. "here's how to speak up in a way that will get you heard [script here]. Ok, now, here's a scenario, let's practice". Having a safe space to fail can work wonders--she probably won't speak up at school because she's afraid of the social consequences of not doing it right. Provide that safe space, if you can.

My mother meant well, but whenever she saw me doing anything that resembled something she didn't like about herself, she would assume that I did it for the same reasons she did. We are very similar people, so she had a hard time separating our experiences and listening to me. She would bulldoze my descriptions of my actual experiences and replace them with her own. She would also criticize without any constructive guidance, leaving me to feel like I could only do wrong. I remember being eight years old and deciding that I was never going to tell her anything. We patched things up many years later, but there were a lot of things she never knew about my life as a kid because she was so bad at listening to me.
posted by rhythm and booze at 12:55 PM on June 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the suggestions posted so far. Let me respond to a couple of things:

Sensory Processing Disorder: she's the kid in our family without those issues.. she is sensitive to loud noises (who isn't?) but has no SPD related issues we know of.

Team Sports: she plays on an AYSO soccer league (friendly games, not super competitive.) She likes it but it's not a passion for her. If we had a kids' Quidditch team, that'd be another story.

Fear of early sexualization - it's a possibility, but what she has expressed to us in not so many words is "I'm fat." She is not. (I am, and mom is, but she and her siblings are not.)
posted by dudeman at 12:56 PM on June 5, 2012

Two things. First, what is she reading? Is it daily life kind of things, like Ramona, Babysitters Club, and Judy Blume type stuff or is it science fiction/fantasy/adventure type stuff?

I ask because I was the same way. I ate the same thing for lunch for 4 years, hated clothes that fit, and had very few friends. I still firmly believe that a haircut in 4th grade ruined my life, but I'm willing to admit that it was an okay ruining.

It's a slow change, but the move to more adventurous reading was linked with a desire to actually see things and do things as I got older. The books led me down the path and I followed. I began to realize that adventures didn't just fall out of the sky, but you actually had to do something first. By my early teens, I was pretty adventurous and would try about anything.

One thing that happened much later on in my life was that my mother told me how much of a nerdy, outcast she was in school. She pushed me for years to be more outgoing and popular but it was never something that I was okay with. When I finally found out that she was pushing because she didn't want me to suffer what she had, it made me realize that some of my seclusion was chosen. I began to chose a little differently. You may not be intentionally telling her that bookish and shy is wrong, but everyone else is. Letting her know what you went through and that you longed for parental support can show her that you love her as she is, but if she wants more, you're willing to help her find that path too.
posted by teleri025 at 12:56 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: OK, I'd like to echo a few things others have said, and add a few comments I haven't seen yet. These will be informed by my own experiences, which are different (I went through many of these same things, but I'm a guy, and I experienced them a bit later in life).
  • Therapy/psychiatry It's almost certainly true that lots of her opposition to these things is due to perfectionism. It sounds like you haven't really explored psychologists yet (as opposed to psychiatrists), which sounds like a potentially better fit for the situation anyway. Insofar as you haven't already, you might consider talking to her about your mental health issues, and those of your family (obviously the latter without naming names). It's important for her to know that these aren't a sign of weakness or being "broken," but a part of life for people of all ages/backgrounds/intellectual levels.
  • Medical treatment You're getting some great advice about possible medical explanations for what's going on. Be very careful about how you follow up on this. There was one time when my mother, acting on a tip-off from one of my teachers, thought I was having some neurological issues (seizures). She took me to the doctor after school one day, unannounced. I remember this as a Stalinesque detention, from the moment we turned the wrong way in the car, the unwillingness to tell me why we were going to the doctor, being asked all these questions by the doctor ("do you ever have trouble remembering what you just did?" etc.). She has zero recollection of how it was done, and barely remembers that it happened at all. I am describing this in some detail because I was pissed about this at the time. Don't be like my mom. The last thing you want is for a great hunt for the cure to make her feel alienated and prodded, and thus for her to clam up about her issues. It doesn't sound like the suggestions are so serious that lots of the needed tests can't be folded into an annual check-up.
  • Adults You don't say much about the adults in your daughter's life. Does she have any teachers, Girl Scout leaders, or other non-relative adults that she's close to? When I was a kid, I had a few people who were very subtly helping me out with social problems -- mostly by just letting me be myself, and occasionally giving me a small corrective nudge (some of which I only noticed literally years later). You might give these people, insofar as they exist, a little run-down of what's going on in your daughter's life. Although definitely not in a way where the benevolent influence of the 'rents can be readily discerned, of course.
  • Friends As a kid, I probably had 2 friends at any one time. Sometimes less. That was perfectly fine! I did not want more and in fact thought most kids my age were insufferable. Even the other smart ones. It wasn't until I got to college that I found people that I enjoyed hanging out with in an unstructured way. Don't conflate the real problems (bullying, body-image issues) with the stuff that's normal for kids (or that, while not being normal, still falls within the envelope of variation for well-adjusted young'uns). Help your daughter solve the former, and leave her to deal with the latter herself, until/unless she asks for help.

posted by dendrochronologizer at 1:14 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: She's reading Ramona, Judy Blume (not Are You There God It's Me Margaret and the like), Harry Potter series, Lemony Snicket, Philip Pullman, Roald Dahl.. The high school level things we let her read are primarily nonfiction, i.e. bios, selective parts of the newspaper, plus some classics. Not the teenage high school drama kind of books.
posted by dudeman at 1:17 PM on June 5, 2012

Response by poster: >You don't say much about the adults in your daughter's life. Does she have any teachers, Girl Scout leaders, or other non-relative adults that she's close to?

She's very close with her teachers from the past few years, all are young women and they are very familiar with her and the issues she is experiencing. They've been very helpful to her, to the extent that they can be, and of course they're great role models.

Other than that she does not have close relationships with adults that are not direct relatives.

>Therapy/psychiatry It's almost certainly true that lots of her opposition to these things is due to perfectionism.

This sounds right on target.
posted by dudeman at 1:26 PM on June 5, 2012

Response by poster: One other point of info - she's not yet going through puberty (at least shows no visible signs of this)
posted by dudeman at 1:30 PM on June 5, 2012

Big thumbs up from the kids here on this book.

Given the Ramona and Blume books, her Lexile score is in the 900s to 1000s range, then?
posted by tilde at 1:34 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

FWIW my guidance counselor in elementary/middle school (they were merged) made me feel WORSE about myself. I was basically told to stop doing the things I enjoyed and start doing the things everyone ELSE enjoyed.

This idea is pretty common - "all kids should be like other kids! if kid x isn't like everyone else, we need to fix her!" We think it's in adulthood that we start finding out who we are, but it occurs earlier, and being told we're wrong hurts.

Self-esteem comes from having something to esteem. You cannot tell your daughter that she needs to stand up to her bullies because she's worth something - you need to SHOW your daughter she's worth something. You obviously love your daughter (or you wouldn't be writing), and if you're worried about her self-esteem, amp up the good things about her. Take her to a book fair, help her organize a show at the library, organize a book-themed sleepover for her and her friends.

When I was growing up I didn't trust my mom with anything - she didn't get *involved* in things I enjoyed (ten dollars to buy a new book, but never asking what it's about, you know?) but spent a ton of time talking about things that I didn't want to (even though she was trying to fix things, like you). I began equating talking with my mom with negative feelings.

In terms of the clothes, if she's nine, she shouldn't have much of a body to "show off"....nine year olds should be wearing "functional" clothing, imo....
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 1:38 PM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

One quick answer, with more later when I'm not on my phone: she might like some more "slightly disaffected smart kid" books - the thing that Ender's Game and Anne of Green Gables share in common. I know that once I commune with LibraryThing tonight I will have more suggestions in this specific area, too.

(Oh - and by the time I was 9 there were girls who were "dating," girls who were willing to make out with boys in the closet when the teacher left the room, and girls who made me, a very typically-sized girl, think that I was fat. Puberty in other kids is even more disruptive than puberty in yourself.)
posted by SMPA at 1:39 PM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

What if you and your wife each started going to therapy on your own, if you're not already? Seems like it could be a valuable way to signal that it is totally normal and something that lots of people find helpful for a whole variety of reasons. And I would go ahead and make the appointments for her, aversion or not. Tie it to something she likes (a trip to the library after each session or whatever), but if it's non-negotiable, I suspect she'll find a way to fill the time with conversation, even if it's a bit of a slower road than if she'd sought it out on her own.
posted by argonauta at 1:40 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you're sort of helicoptering to me. I didn't see anything in your description of her that was particularly alarming. She sounds like I did at that age and in fact I often think back about how fantastic my childhood was when I was able to spend an entire day just doing nothing but reading. Also, the fact that I read so much has helped me tremendously in my college-and-beyond education. This will probably become even more important now that kids spend so much time in front of screens. Please, whatever you do, do not discourage her reading habit no matter how crazy it seems.

And at that age, I don't think there's anything wrong with having only a few friends, especially if they're good ones. This seems normal to me. Socializing is hard when you're young, and having even a few good-quality friends seems like a good achievement. Thinking back to when I was that age, I also only had a few good friends, any more would have been difficult to maintain.

When you're a kid you have to figure out how to relate to the world on your own terms and it sounds like she's doing fine with that. Like I said, I was similar and my parents basically left me to my own devices and didn't question or pathologize my behavior like you seem to be doing. I think that would have made me more neurotic- having my parents think there was something wrong with me for just doing what I liked. And yes, dealing with the mean girls sucks but the few times my mom (or teachers) tried to step in it was mortifying, so we all just got better at hiding what was going on. Don't get me wrong, there are circumstances in which it goes too far and something needs to be done. But as long as you encourage her to tell you if it gets to that point, and let her know you can step in if she wants you to, I wouldn't push it beyond that.

Honestly, the one place I wish my parents would have been more involved in my struggles was at home. My sister was a complete bitch to me and got away with it the vast majority of the time. In that case I think more intervention would have been appropriate, because they're her parents too. My poor relationship with my sister, I think, set the tone for all my other less-than-ideal interactions with peers, but I doubt my parents realized it. What I'm getting at is, make sure you are consistent in being supportive and loving at home, and model good and appropriate social behavior. Make sure the siblings are treating each other with respect. It took me a long time to understand how people should and should not treat each other, because like I said my sister was awful to me but since she got away with it I assumed it was okay to treat others that way, and to be treated that way by others.

If she says she's fat, continue to tell her she's not. (But be careful here, lots of parents seem to be a bit in denial about their kids' health especially if they are overweight too.) Tell her she's not fat but if she's interested in being more proactive about her health you're willing to explore the issue with her. Overall I think if you are just supportive at home and set high standards for how everybody treats each other, she'll be able to carry the strength from that support into dealing with her other struggles. But please don't make her feel like there's something wrong with her that needs to be fixed. That will haunt her for the rest of her life. You can keep an eye on the situation, sure, but I'd say you need to be really really sure that there is definitely something wrong before pushing the psychiatrist, etc.

I'd recommend maybe mentioning your concerns to your family physician, and then allowing her some time during routine visits to talk to the doctor alone about whatever. The doctor can ask the questions that will uncover potential mental illness if it exists, and probably without your daughter even realizing that's what's going on. I know because my mom pulled this trick on me and I didn't even realize it until many years later (when I found out, I was pissed, so be discreet about it.) But if you were my parent, I'd want you to stop seeing me in a negative light and just be supportive and watchful, ready to step in if asked, but not pushing the issue. She sounds like she's well on her way to turning out just fine.
posted by Argyle_Sock_Puppet at 1:41 PM on June 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

One of the nicest things my parents did for me was support me in dressing myself from a young age. They'd step in for big things like showing too much skin, profanity at school/in public, age-appropriateness, but they left me alone other than that. I wore a lot of baggy clothes, too. My mom tells me when I'm wearing something she likes; and of course that means sometimes she still doesn't comment on my clothes much at all.

I was not a chubby kid, but I thought I was fat, too. I was raised to have a really positive body image and I sort of felt an added layer of shame when I didn't feel that way. (I wrote about this here before, randomly.)

Which is to say: My parents wanted me to be happy, and that applied to how I dressed. I don't have a lot of input on the rest, but I think you can leave the clothes alone.
posted by juliplease at 1:48 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing I have to check myself on and I cringe when my wife does it is projecting yourself onto them. My wife had tons of friends growing up, and is still very close with ehr family. She constantly worries about my eldest son (who is very much like your daughter) about not having friends.

As Argyle says, she seems pretty normal in the general band of things. If she talks to you about things, even if it isn't the things you worry about, at least that communication path is open. That's probably the most important thing having something to talk about, even if it is the books she's reading or the computer games she likes.

She may have some issues, but don't jump to things based on yourself. I can see myself in all my kids, but I can't see all of myself in a single one, and even the parts that are there are variations on a theme.

If she has a friend or two, great. Find some shared activities they enjoy and help coordinate things outside of school for them to do together that they'll all like.

As long as she has support of you and a small peer group (even if it's a peer group of one), she'll be fine.
posted by rich at 1:50 PM on June 5, 2012

Teaching her about (age appropriate) exercise and strength training might help her with the "I'm fat" stuff, and help with self confidence.

Does she drink sugary and/or caffeinated drinks? Cut some of that out. Gradually. Don't make it a new family rule, because this will trigger the "hatred of new things" feelings. Instead, just start keeping cold water and seltzer available, and reduce the availability of the bad stuff. Just a thought. The kid across the hall from me is a holy terror, and when they in their groceries, I can see why: they go through like 3 cases of the stuff a week.

Make the evening meal less heavy on carbs. (Speaking only for myself, I sleep terribly when I've accidentally carboloaded before bed.)

And yeah, get her some books about teens standing up for themselves in constructive ways. But again, don't tell her to read it. Just leave it in the bookcase for her to discover on her own.
posted by gjc at 1:55 PM on June 5, 2012

Also I wouldn't necessarily try too hard to limit or monitor what she's reading too closely. Again, my parents basically left me to my own devices and I appreciate that. We all went to the library together, parted ways while I picked out and checked out my books, and my mom didn't even look at what they were once I had them. I know it's difficult to think she may be reading about death or sex or violence, but she already knows all these things exist anyway. I think letting kids explore curiosity about hard topics through the medium of books is far better than only getting exposed to it through TV and the internet and misinformed classmates. I think with books, these issues are generally explored in a more thoughtful way, and the more you read the more informed and well rounded your opinions will be. And I think it's especially good for shy kids, who probably hate the idea of talking to their parents about embarrassing things.
posted by Argyle_Sock_Puppet at 1:56 PM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Jiu-jitsu classes.
posted by rhizome at 2:03 PM on June 5, 2012

I'm a teacher, and one thing I've found that helps boost self-esteem big time is putting a child in a position where younger children look up to them for leadership, guidance, or help. Maybe there's a homework club or an aftercare program, or someplace she could read aloud to younger children.
posted by alphanerd at 2:03 PM on June 5, 2012 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Hi! When I read this, I kind of wanted to check if I'd created a new question in the night without realizing it.

I have essentially your daughter. She is also 9. I also live in NYC. Please feel free to memail me if you want to chat about this more extensively.

A few things that I've found or am working on solutions for:

Mornings are difficult - she's grouchy, angry, defiant.

Does she read at night? Mine does. She pretends she doesn't, but she does, until very late at night, if not stopped. Also, if she's a sensitive, imaginative child, she may be working out her issues and thinking a lot at night. Then the morning times are really, really tough - because she's sleep deprived. Some solutions I've found: some form of outdoor play or exercise to tire her out lets her sleep easier. Give her tasks or chores that involve going up and down stairs if you have to. It will make mornings better. Also: block out light and keep all flashlights in a single central repository.

She may have some body image issues - she's slim and IMHO quite pretty, but prefers loose fitting clothing so it doesn't show her body.

Mine's a bit heavier, but one thing you should know: they are all talking about weight right now. All of them. If your daughter is slim, I'll bet she's still heard at least one girl in her class teased for being fat. Talk to her about body image. But also remember to compliment her for other things than her looks. If she's feeling her looks aren't great, when you compliment her profusely on them, she may just feel you don't understand or are out of touch - or are making fake compliments.

Has trouble adjusting to new things: new clothes, haircut, new toys, anything except new books, basically. "Fear of the new."

It may be less "fear of the new" and more "comfort in the old." When things are chaotic, they sometimes tend to really relish things that are familiar and repetitive. With mine, it's with restaurants.

This year she has had some trouble with a bully in class (a "mean girl"). We've gone to the teacher and the administration with mixed results. I'm concerned that she does not stick up for herself - not in terms of fighting, but in terms of advocating for herself and letting the teachers know when something is not right. She is anti-snitching to the extreme and will not tell a teacher when she is being bullied.

This is probably because it doesn't help even when they do. Mine tried telling a teacher. It didn't work. Honestly, it's really difficult for teachers to do anything, too - they can't stop what really hurts the children, which is being excluded and made fun of. Sometimes when they do stick up for themselves, it's even worse.

How often is she having playdates with other children? Is there any significant difference between her and the other gifted children in her class? Have they known each other longer?

We also came up with a reading list about brave girls, and lonely girls who were still awesome and fantastic. If you want I can try to catch a few titles and send you some.
posted by corb at 2:25 PM on June 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

You say that you and your wife are fat but your daughter and her siblings aren't. Is it possible that your daughter is picking up on any food shaming or body issues talk coming from you or your wife and internalizing it? I was never fat, but my mom dieted constantly throughout my childhood, and although she was always completely supportive of me and my body, her relationship with food and with her body crept into the ways she talked to me (for example, when we ate dessert it was "being bad" or "indulging" or "guilty pleasure"; when we skipped breakfast after sleeping late on a weekend it was "being good").

I wasn't a nine year old that recently but I had a close friend at that age who was very slim but whose parents were obese, and she was teased a lot about how she was going to get fat like them "any day now".

I know it's hard enough to be healthy, mentally and physically, for yourself, let alone worrying about how it affects your kids, but I would definitely take inventory to see if any of these issues could ring true with your daughter.
posted by telegraph at 2:32 PM on June 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

Fear of early sexualization - it's a possibility, but what she has expressed to us in not so many words is "I'm fat."

I still wouldn't discard concern on that. Something many girls at that age do is equate "fat" with "pubescent" (and "pubescent" with "fat") and freaking out about being sexualized can often lead to eating issues around maintaining a "childlike" body habitus. It's complex to say "I don't like my body and its changes" and much easier to fall into the cultural demonizing of "fat" as a term of disgust.

In any case, unless she's wearing clothes that are causing her actual danger (pants so loose they get caught in her bike chain or whatever), I'd let her do her own thing around clothes at this age.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:43 PM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, I can tell you a story about how my parents helped me deal with bullying when I was that age. I found it to be very helpful, but I am not a parent or a psychologist.

When I was around your daughter's age, I was riding the bus home from school every day. I was being bullied in the way your daughter probably is - nothing physical, but relentless teasing from one other kid on the bus, let's call him Jason. My mother's advice was pretty bad ("tell him he's being mean," or something like that). My dad, on the other hand, really helped me out. Here's what he did: First, he told me to very calmly ask Jason to stop. He said I should try that once, and then tell him what happened. I see now that he was doing a kind of due diligence, making sure that relatively peaceful means had failed. And they did. I came home the next day and reported that Jason had not stopped. So we moved on the Phase 2. My dad said to me, "hey, Jason's pretty short, isn't he?" And he was - this was a classic Napoleonic complex. So my father helped me write out a list of short jokes, as many as we could think of. They weren't even very clever. But the point was quantity. He said that the next time Jason started in on me, I should just start reciting the list, and not stop - the idea was massive over-retaliation. I was never supposed to do it first - the list would only start in response to teasing, but once it started it would not stop until I got off the bus. So I tried it for a week.

I made him cry. He never bothered me again.

If you want to try this method with your daughter (and I'm not saying you should, necessarily, just that it worked for me), you're probably going to have to encourage your daughter to make fun of this girl for things that you don't think that girls should make fun of each other for. The point is not to become friends or reach some understanding or to make the world a better place. This works more like a bike lock (which doesn't stop bicycle theft so much as encourage a thief to steal a different bike) - it communicates to the bully that bullying your daughter is going to unleash some real unpleasantness on her, and that it would be easier and safer to pick on someone else. This may involve encouraging your daughter to make fun of someone for being overweight, or unattractive, or poor, or for having divorced parents or any number of other things that people really, really shouldn't make the subject of mockery. Which is why it's important to make her understand that this is a defensive weapon only, and should never be used as a first-strike. Honestly, I feel slightly uncomfortable recommending it, but it worked so well for me that I felt like I had to throw it out there.
posted by Ragged Richard at 3:00 PM on June 5, 2012 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: >Given the Ramona and Blume books, her Lexile score is in the 900s to 1000s range, then?
Fountas & Pinnell "Z" which is about Lexile 1100
posted by dudeman at 3:10 PM on June 5, 2012

Ragged Richard's story is very much like something that happened to me in middle school. There was this obnoxious kid, Alex, who made fun of me a lot. He was one of many kids who made fun of me a lot, and I usually just ignored them all because my parents were of the "they want a reaction so if you ignore them they'll stop" school. Which, btw, was completely wrong, because what they wanted was someone they could mock with no consequences. So for some reason, one day Alex just annoyed me a bit too much. He was always calling me ugly and deformed and a bunch of stuff I don't remember. Very nasty little twerp. And this one day I snapped and made fun of his braces. He had a headgear or something. And he cried. I, girl who got made fun of every day for years by multiple people, made mean boy cry with an almost certainly not very clever remark about his braces. And he never did it again.

I'm just saying this to suggest that stopping bullies can sometimes be accomplished even without resorting to the more personal insults. Sometimes simply not being the person who will take it, even for a minute, is enough. I totally agree with the philosophy of talking back. But bullies are often such empty, useless people who are used to being obeyed that it can take much less than you think to shut them up. If you're not comfortable coaching your daughter to be as bad as the mean girl is, there's a chance she can be effective in stopping her simply by saying her shoes are ugly or some such. If that doesn't work, though, she should say whatever she has to.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:26 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

for this type of kid, I enthusiastically recommend Louis Sachar's books -- all of them, but especially Holes, Someday Angeline, Dogs Don't Tell Jokes, Sixth Grade Secrets and There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom -- and Jerry Spinelli's books, especially Maniac Magee and Wringer. they all take on the ethics of bullying and being shy or different with humor and depth.
posted by changeling at 3:36 PM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

She is 9, and she's uncomfortable in her body? That is totally normal, and to be expected, and fine. It really sucks that girls start being bombarded with body image stuff from such a young age, but it happens. This is a great story of how one woman addressed this issue with her 7-year-old.

Does she not like new things, or does she just not like change? (New clothes = different clothes, new haircut = different hair, etc.) Because not liking change also strikes me as pretty normal.

As for the bullying...ugh. I'm sorry she has to deal with that! It happens, and again, lots of kids deal with it all the time, but she shouldn't have to deal with it. I think you could try having a pseudo-adult conversation with her about what's going on. Ask her how she feels when it's happening, and, in a perfect world, what she would want to see people do around her to support her when it happens. That includes her teachers, her friends, other students, and you. Figure out a plan that you guys can walk through for what she should do or say when it happens, or how she can ask others for help in a way that works for her. Talk to her about what you want to do about it, and what steps you're thinking of taking, and see how those make her feel. Will she be embarrassed if you talk to her teachers again? Would she be interested in reading some books about kids getting bullied and who feel like they don't fit in? I know she might not be an adolescent just yet, but this book has all sorts of amazing advice in it that could help you talk to her (I feel like it's helped me talk to other adults even!)...It's all about making sure the person you're talking to feels heard, and involving them in problem-solving. I could definitely see the strategies in there being transferable to a 9-year-old.

Also, yes, lots of kids really don't like snitching, and kids can be really, really hard on peers who are seen as snitching/tattling. However, your daughter may not know where the line is between tattling and getting necessary help from an adult, which means you should go over that line really explicitly with her. For example, yes, if someone says something mean about you, telling an adult can feel like snitching (ugh remember that Brady Bunch episode? Cindy was kind of the worst), so let's talk about things you can do that aren't tattling (ex: you can ignore that person, you can walk away, etc). But if someone is constantly saying nasty things, or someone threatens you physically, or someone does something potentially dangerous, your daughter should know that it's not only ok to 'tattle', it's super, super important.
posted by violetish at 5:33 PM on June 5, 2012

I was like that. I think what upset me was when people seemed to insist that I should be a different way than how I was, instead of just accepting that I was quiet and liked to read a lot. If she wants to be quiet and read a lot and wear baggy clothes, what if you were to just let her know that you support her and it's totally fine? Let the shy kids be shy if they want to. As long as she knows for sure that it is not okay for louder/more gregarious kids to push them around, and she doesn't have to put up with that. Actually I recall what saved me from any more bullying after about 3rd grade was developing kind of a stubborn, righteous conviction (from reading too many books! thanks, Judy Blume - has she read Blubber yet?) that picking on less popular kids was just not right.

(And wow, am I grateful to be a child of the 80s/early 90s when everyone wore baggy clothes because it was cool.)
posted by citron at 7:47 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was coming here to recommend Louis Sachar's There's a boy in the girl's bathroom, but changeling beat me to it. That and other of his books are really good for that age. I was very much how you describe your little girl and for some reason I read this book again and again and loved it. It's from the sort-of-bully's perspective and it has a positive presentation of his relationship to the school counselor.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:50 PM on June 5, 2012

She sounds completely normal. I was that kid when I was her age, and my mother drove me batshit with all her self-help books and sending me to therapy. Be careful not to overreact to things that sound pretty normal to me, or she may end up hating you.

Just be there for her, and allow her some space to develop who she is as an individual. Offer what you think are good choices, when she talks to you about bullying or her body, but don't force her to take your approach or take her to a shrink when she doesn't.

Grumpy in the morning: some people are just always grumpy in the morning. Is she staying up reading? My parents tried to quash that, but god himself couldn't have stopped reading til all hours. If you can offer her exercise in the evenings it may tire her out and get her to sleep better. My parents took walks, and I went with them, which helped everyone's level of physical fitness.
posted by thelastcamel at 10:14 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sleep. Sleep. My most difficult kid has significant sleep issues. Another one is angry and sad and difficult when he gets less than 10 hours of sleep. He has to wake up at 6am for school during term, and unless he has an afternoon nap, it's horrible.

During the holidays, when he's back to his "real" circadian rhythm, he sleeps 10pm to 8am, and is a pleasure to be around and generally upbeat and happy.

Try giving her a long afternoon nap, or experiment with a much earlier bedtime. Make it a whole family thing where you all go to bed at 9pm or something for a week, and see if that helps.
posted by viggorlijah at 12:12 AM on June 6, 2012

Seconding whoever mentioned making sure that she isn't reading late into the night - when I was in late elementary school, nighttime reading was probably my biggest problem, no joke. I would hide books everywhere and was the queen of surreptitious reading. I didn't need lamps or flashlights, I had good eyes so I could read by the light of a nightlight or the hall light or moonlight. It made (heck, still makes) mornings absolute hell and was the primary and usually only source of conflict with my parents all the way through high school.

When I was 9/10, I recollect my dad and mom turning out my bedclothes, checking under and around the bed and essentially frisking me to check for illicit reading material before tucking me in. Sounds insane, especially to parents who struggle to get their kids to read, but it was like a compulsion with me, I had no self-control where books were concerned.
posted by clerestory at 12:44 AM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: She does read late into the night unless policed, and we have had to confiscate flashlights, books, keychain lights, and hide all our emergency flashlights and bicycle lights in the house so she won't steal those and use them to read. That is probably the #1 source of nighttime stress and morning grumpiness/anger that we have to deal with.

Thanks for all the advice, folks. I'll let you know how it goes.
posted by dudeman at 9:18 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is kiddo aware of the correlation between night time reading and morning grumpiness? Or between a good night's sleep and a pleasant next day?

Knowing about the relationship between the two may help her to moderate her moods. She might decide to read less late - or she could find it easier to rein in her emotions once she sees a cause for them besides the obvious immediacy of things she finds annoying in the morning.
posted by emilyw at 1:48 PM on June 6, 2012

Sounds a lot like me at that age. My advice from the other side would be that you shouldn't worry about it. Nothing you listed sounds abnormal to me. Every point in your worry list would have applied to me and I was blissfully happy and still am!

If you want, it would be nice to offer her choices for new things and activities but don't push or judge if she doesn't pick them up. I was always mystified and vaguely stressed out when my mom seemed to think I needed more and different things. I was happy, why wasn't she?

Honestly, the best thing you can do is be supportive of who she is and appreciate her uniqueness and independence. Let her approach you with things about her life that she wants to change and at that point you can sit down together and figure it out.
posted by tinamonster at 9:38 PM on June 6, 2012

When I was in grade school, I was taken to a child psychiatrist (for perfectionism, I think; I was inconsolable because I spelled a word wrong on the pretest). I went regularly for a while, the guy was nice enough, I got to build things and let marbles roll down them and that was fun.

But some other kids in my class found out, and made snide remarks. Also really the therapy didn't seem to help-- I'm still a terrible perfectionist and was just sort of a weird kid-- and I resented that I got made fun of for it.

Nobody asked me to go to a psychiatrist again, but I would have fought it with all my preteen stubbornness if someone had. A few years ago I faced an event I couldn't really handle alone, and I waited almost 2 years before seeing a psychiatrist because of my childhood memory of being made fun of.

This is just to say your child might have reasons not to see a psychiatrist, and you should consider those reasons valid. (Wouldn't be productive to drag her against her will, anyhow.)

Sleepwise, I just wanted to comment on delayed-sleep-phase. I've always been a nightowl, used to read under the covers by the light of whatever I could find, be it my alarm clock or a flashlight or an old glow bracelet or the full moon. And I was cranky cranky cranky in the mornings (oh my poor parents). I'm also cranky when I'm hungry so before breakfast was extra bad. Unfortunately you can't really change her schedule because of school, but keep in mind there might be some biology as well as some stubbornness going on there, and see if you can work with that in mind. See if she's got other triggers (like hunger) for the crankiness and fix those if you can't change the sleep schedule.

Lastly, sports do help. If she's not that in to soccer, maybe there's something else she'd be happier trying? Sometimes for people who aren't super athletic a sort-of-team sport is better; I swam as a kid, and I think it worked for me because I couldn't let anyone else down if I wasn't awesome, but of course doing well gave more points to the team as a whole, and there are still other kids around to socialize with. Rock climbing, track, etc would all have teams but lots of individual events.
posted by nat at 11:21 PM on June 7, 2012

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