How do I help my tween not hurt herself accidentally on purpose?
April 30, 2013 11:26 AM   Subscribe

My tween daughter recently had a minor but serious accident that required a visit to the emergency room and a few days on narcotic painkillers. During this time she missed school, skipped homework and other normal activities, and basically got a lot of attention and concern from relatives and friends, and of course me, her mother. Now, having recovered, she's articulated that she misses all that special attention and has explicitly said that she wants to get hurt again.

She is under the care of mental health professionals for various issues most concisely characterized as social and perhaps generalized anxiety and maybe some attachment issues (her father has not been present since she was a toddler). She also has a lot of inappropriate attention-seeking behaviors, however she's never purposely hurt herself, though on two occasions she has threatened to. She is a "drama queen" but I have worried that her line between reality and playacting can get blurred and she might actually try to hurt herself.

Her health professionals and teachers are all on board and attentive to all of these issues, but the questions I have for the hive are these: How do you counter all that positive attention that comes when someone (especially a kid) is genuinely sick or injured? If this happens again, could (or should?) I somehow try to get the relatives and friends to not be so effusive and concerned in the face of what may truly be a serious situation? How can I help her know that injury or illness are not good ways to get special attention? How can I try to redirect her before she heads down what I'm scared is going to be a risk-taking path toward attention-getting and/or emotion expression?
posted by marionett gjorda av strumpor to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Now that she's all better, can you focus on some special attention time, just for the hell of it? Then she'll see it less like she has to get hurt for special attention because you're giving it to her anyway. Not saying you have to bend over backwards to pamper her, but can you put off homework for a couple of hours to have popcorn and movie time? Can you make arrangements to go somewhere special on the weekend? Just little things so she knows she'll still get special attention.
posted by Eicats at 11:35 AM on April 30, 2013 [9 favorites]

Shower her with positive attention now!

Think of fun things for you to do together. Even washing the car on a sunny day is fun when you're outside with the radio on.

Praise her when she's doing the right thing, all the time, work HARD to find things to praise. Turn a blind eye and refuse to comment on unacceptable behavior (even negative attention, is positive attention.)

Channel that dramatic energy into a kids acting program or community theatre. Even if she never acts on stage, that melieu can be fun, especially when all the other kids are dramatic as well.

Have good male role models give her positive attention as well. Uncles who can take her out on dates (of sorts) to show her how a lady should be treated by a gentlemen. Friends of the family who can validate her in the ways she needs to be validated.

Some people are just bottomless pits of need, and they need lots and lots of attention and praise. It doesn't cost anything, so why not?

What you want to avoid is having your daughter seek this attention inappropriately from boys or from girlfriends or other unsavory situations. You want a little girl who knows who she is, is okay with herself and who doesn't get her head turned by the first person who exploits her need for validation.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:35 AM on April 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

Attention is a normal, natural human need. It isn't some kind of crazy to want attention, although there are bad ways of trying to get it. Does she get sufficient (for her, not for you) attention in general?
posted by jeather at 11:41 AM on April 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm sorry you're dealing with this. But this will absolutely get better. Really.

As long as she's getting the right kind of attention for the right things.

I'm a sped teacher (specializing in high schoolers with emotional/behavioral challenges) as well as the parent of a teenager with bad-thought OCD, so I can offer various perspectives.

First, it's critical to keep her in the mental health care loop. Never to be an alarmist, but a big reason to take this type of thing very seriously is because of basic brain development. What I mean is that if your daughter wants to "try out" hurting herself on purpose (and she has mentioned doing this), because of her age and developmental ability, she really might hurt herself accidentally. Badly. Not to be scaring you, but it happens.

So keep her in competent therapy as long as you feel it's productive. However, as weird as it may sound, you also have to be really careful about not making a big deal out of therapy. If she starts getting positive reinforcement for having so many problems, then she's going to start inventing problems (and not purposely because she's a bad kid, but she will make the connection that she gets a lot of attention when she's unhappy). So really keep an eye out for that. It's a really tough balance but you'll be able to tell when she's being overdramatic versus when she's in crisis.

One other thing I'd strongly advise is to very much minimize special attention when she misses school or isn't feeling well. And as counterintuitive as it may sound, try to minimize therapy. Don't go out for ice cream after and chat and celebrate. No. She will start making all sorts of wrong connections.

I can always tell when my kid with OCD is spiraling down because he'll have somatic complaints for attention. His stomach hurts. I say, "Ok," and walk away. His head hurts. "Uh huh," and I walk away. And then he stops and I make a point of engaging with him when he's not complaining.

We go for runs, kayaking, bike rides, ice cream for dinner, all fun stuff when he's "well." When he's unwell, it's a quiet room and no fun for him.
posted by kinetic at 11:41 AM on April 30, 2013 [27 favorites]

Possibly reverse the dynamic: give her plenty of time and attention on a regular basis, but don't necessarily drop everything on a moment's notice because she has an immediate "need."
posted by deanc at 11:43 AM on April 30, 2013

Sports, sports, sports. Any kind of physical activity where getting knocked down and getting back up again doesn't generate any special attention. Teach her to fail appropriately.

"Wow, that softball went right through your legs. That'll happen. Deal with it."
"Hey, you tripped over your own feet playing soccer. Bummer. Get back up."
"You went jogging and now your legs hurt. Yep! You're doing it right. Didja have fun?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:43 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Are you in therapy for you? Please go talk to an impartial third party adult about the dynamic between you and your daughter and whatever else is going on in your world. Because your situation sucks, and her situation sucks. And she is expressing some things that it is hard for any parent to hear. But she really needs you to listen to her now. She needs to know and believe that you really hear her. The dismissiveness in a phrase like 'drama queen' is really damaging. It focuses on what she IS instead of what she is DOING. Even if you never use that phrase in her presence, it shapes how you view her, and kids can tell. Man, they can tell.

Shame vs guilt. Watch the Brene Brown videos on shame and vulnerability. Your daughter is expressing immense vulnerability. She needs to learn that it's a tool for growth. And you have to teach her. Which means you have to learn it too. It's not fun, but it makes life so much richer.

I ask because my parents referred to me as a 'drama queen' and it was awful. I'm not going to go into any details because they're not relevant, but that phrase is absolutely, 100% invalidating. It's like the 'I'm sorry, but' type of apology that isn't an apology at all.

The two of you can get through this. Step one is both of you really knowing that these feeling aren't who she IS, but these feelings are what she is dealing with.
posted by bilabial at 12:08 PM on April 30, 2013 [16 favorites]

It's probably worth pointing out that the amount of attention you receive as a result of getting hurt goes down each time you get hurt. Particularly if it's the result of your own negligence / stupidity / accident-prone-ness.

It's the kind of thing that doesn't work so well a second time, and even less the third, etc.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:24 PM on April 30, 2013

Response by poster: Lots of excellent advice, and I feel a bit reassured that I'm on the right path and that I am in fact proceeding in a way that anyone else would if faced with such a situation. And I will keep doing it all with renewed certainty that it will help--positive attention, sports, acting, male role models, balance, patience....

bilabial I'm sorry I hit a trigger for you and I completely understand what you are saying. Don't worry--I swear I really really don't call her a drama queen in her presence. In fact I doubt she's ever heard me say those words. It is, however, a mantra I sometimes repeat to myself when she is being particularly trying and you're right that with or without the actual words of course she must know on some level that I am tired of what I am perceiving as drama. I really do try to validate her feelings as hers to feel and I realize that she truly does feel things strongly, but at the same time her therapists and teachers and I are trying to get her to learn to modulate her expressive and dramatic outbursts to socially expected behaviors. We do have a very wonderful therapy situation--it's a team where one therapist works with my daughter and one works with me. They coordinate, but we don't usually get together as all four of us--they try to leave it to me to implement just between me and my daughter. It works really well.

Anyway, thank you all. More advices are of course welcome if there's more people want to add.
posted by marionett gjorda av strumpor at 12:38 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

My child needs a lot of attention. One of our favorite outings involves going to the paint-your-own pottery place. It's nice, because you can have a conversation and paint at the same time. It's sort of relaxing too. And then a week later you have a shiny new plate/mug/vase to pick up.

Your daughter could make personalized plates for relatives ... so she'd get attention from you during the activity, later when you pick up the pottery, and then still more when the item was given as a gift. It also reinforces that giving to others feels good.

Volunteer work might be a good idea, too. Maybe reading to older people in the nursing home, or serving a meal in a shelter. She'll be serving an important role and it will also put things in perspective.

You sound like a good parent. Good luck.
posted by Ostara at 1:01 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

What are her extracurricular activities like? Along the lines of Cool Papa Bell's suggestion, I wonder if she would like actual drama--that is, theater, improv, dance, other performing arts. Those can be good ways to find community and support and experiment with modulating behavior, expressing emotions in different ways, etc, not to mention you get to have audiences.
posted by epanalepsis at 1:02 PM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: ...with or without the actual words of course she must know on some level that I am tired of what I am perceiving as drama.

And you know what?

I think that's fine.

You're her mom and love her and support her no matter what, but I don't think there's anything wrong with her understanding that she will get much better results from you, from school and in life by being articulate and reasoned instead of tantrum-y and overly dramatic.

Because nobody does like a drama queen.

And on a sidenote, even though you're getting advice to get her into drama, I would tentatively suggest that's probably not a great idea for her. it's really all too easy to get sucked overly dramatic and diva-esque and hissy many of those kids can be. There's a stereotype of "obnoxious theatre kidz" for a reason.

I would be thinking of activities that incorporate movement, mental grounding, perseverance and most of all, self-control.. Off the top of my head, yoga, martial arts and horseback riding are activities that require you to focus and be calm.

I would, as much as is possible with any tween, push in those areas as opposed to drama, which is filled with drama kids, and I'm speaking as also the parent of one very non-dramatic kid who did really well in theater but she hated the hissy dramatics of most of the other kids. Since your daughter has some inclination towards the dramatic, she may get all too wrapped up in that world, and not in a positive way.

And you seem like a great mom. Pat yourself on the back.
posted by kinetic at 1:17 PM on April 30, 2013 [9 favorites]

Super fun physical activity plans with friends. Every kid realizes at some point that being too sick to do homework has its advantages. For most of us, being healthy enough to go to the water park occasionally is a really compelling reason to not get hurt.
posted by steinwald at 1:30 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

This was not triggering for me. I brought in my personal experience with the phrase for relevance. If you told me you beat your kid and don't understand why she won't speak to you ten years later, that might trigger me. Everyone is different, so I appreciate your concern.

It's good (great!) that you're both in therapy. I think at this point it might be best to bounce all the ideas you've received here off the people who know both you and your daughter and work with them AND her to make a plan. Her therapist can help her explore this issue of pain/injury leading to attention. DBT has some great interpersonal skills practice that involve stopping to think about how words/actions/expectations change the relationships we have with other people. Nobody here knows why your daughter craves attention, but she can work on healthy ways to ask for it, as well as healthy ways to delay gratification.

You are doing an awesome job, and that is obvious in your ability to ask this question and sit with the discomfort. Being present and doing the hard work alongside your daughter is also doing her so much good. I know it's frustrating, but you are absolutelly moving in the right direction. With that in mind, please don't try to be your daughter's therapist. At the very least, get her team to guide you before initially discussing this with her. It can be really tough to frame a conversation that Tweens (and Teens) will hear as being about their actions instead of as them being failing failures.
posted by bilabial at 1:40 PM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

If this happens again, could (or should?) I somehow try to get the relatives and friends to not be so effusive and concerned in the face of what may truly be a serious situation?

The answer to drama queen behavior isn't necessarily "We're gonna hold back on the positive attention now because we don't want to reward this bullshit."

Sometimes it's more like, "You're gonna get so fucking much positive attention. All the damn time, no matter what you do, whether you're acting out or not. It's just gonna be an all-you-can eat unconditional-love-and-validation buffet until you finally decide you're full."
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 5:33 PM on April 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Might there be a way to have more one-on-one attention from relatives and friends on a regular basis? Outings, cookie-making, or movie nights are all more fun than being hurt, and if she's doing it with someone how normally doesn't pay a lot of attention, it can be fabulous. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of family friends taking me out for something special, just me. I think that's probably more feasible than finding more attention or patience in your day to day life. (At least that's true for me -- I just have only so much before I need to recharge/sleep/etc.) Though of course special days are nice too. (We sometimes have pajama day where we don't get dressed and eat breakfast for most of our meals.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:34 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh goodness, so much to think about. Margalo Epps, I think you sort of hit on something, which is that she gets a ton of attention in many ways from lots of people day-to-day, but NOT from the particular relatives and friends whose attention she really enjoyed when she got hurt. It reminds me of something I once said in my own youth that "everyone is there for me except the ONE GUY I WANT to pay attention to me." (And therein I reveal my own baggage of fear that I'm setting her up to repeat the mistakes I made, as Ruthless Bunny's comment so aptly concludes.)

This "attention from the people who don't usually pay attention" thing is definitely something for me to try to help her figure out (not necessarily "solvable" given my family dynamic but it's nice to have an insight to think on like this). And Ostara your suggestion to give her ways to give and surely the attention will return could be a way to make this happen a little bit at least.

And re the drama/theater, kinetic's kind of got it there. My daughter has perhaps too many theatrical-type performance opportunities, and even though I want to help her pursue the one thing that she seems to feel passionate about (and is objectively quite good at), I fear it may not be healthy for her. A few months ago my sister remarked almost exactly what kinetic said about maybe backing off the dramatic pursuits, but it's a heck of a lot easier to hear something like that from a stranger on the internet!

This AskMe has been a great experience for me. I felt really vulnerable putting this question out there and you all have made me feel extremely supported and helped me open my mind up to ways to think about and approach this whole bigger picture parenting journey. Thanks.
posted by marionett gjorda av strumpor at 9:27 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 'Suck it up' is for sure a thing that's learnable from team sports, especially, as are:

- show up, every practice
- support and work with your team; accept your role in it (no stars)
- win and lose with grace (no gloating, no 'whining')
- take your place in a public place (no hiding in the sidelines, or behind/in a book at home)
- sometimes, calls aren't fair
- (at the same time) aim for excellence (no caving; try to win)

I didn't learn those things that way, because I was a slightly dramatic hider-in-books, but I can appreciate what sport early in life can do for people (and why sports analogies are so well-loved).

It's got to be something she's interested in & could be good at, though (who likes doing things in which they suck?), and ideally with a friendly league that's just competitive enough for outcomes to matter, but not so cut-throat she'll be scared to go.

Things like music and dance (things I did, which I'm guessing your daughter would also prefer) can offer some of the above benefits, especially in group settings like choir, but they're less challenging in terms of balancing social and physical self-assertion and negotiation. Things can get messy & unpredictable in an actual game; kids have to learn to quickly self-regulate, work in coordinated action, etc.

I agree with playing down/normalizing therapy and the lead-up to it, and rewarding preferred behaviours more often.
posted by nelljie at 10:24 PM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

One thing that my mom did when I was a teen was have a mom/daughter day or afternoon once per month. I usually got to choose the activity or my mom would suggest a few things and we'd just go out and do something and just focus on hanging out. I'm sure that I rolled my eyes and even tried to beg out of these but I really do remember them, lo, these many years later!

I also think you can have a frank discussion with her if you haven't already. It's amazing that she shared that insight with you and maybe on a long car ride you guys can talk about that kind of attention and what that means to her and stress to her that we all need to take care of ourselves as best we can, that pity attention isn't nearly as rewarding as being proud of ourselves and that, as she matures and feels more sure of herself, she will find more self esteem. And that you are so, so proud of her for being an awesome daughter.
posted by amanda at 10:37 AM on May 2, 2013

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