Q. My four-year-old twin girl gets very grumpy and upset when with other children of the same age when they visit her at home. Sometimes she can even become aggressive and storm off to her room and then after an hour or so she comes back to herself and plays nicely. This also happens when we go out socially. If visiting friends she gets very excited and disruptive, and becomes almost naughty showing off. As a consequence we do not visit people. We are not sure how to help her cope.
A. Learning to deal with social situations and to manage all the associated emotions such as excitement, nervousness or stress is a big job for young children. These are among the most sophisticated skills that they have to learn and it takes time and patience as a parent to help them.
The first thing to do is to try to understand what is going on for your daughter during social visits. Does she feel a bit shy or stressed when children visit or does she find it hard to share her space or toys when they come? Or does she find visitors hard because it means you will be attending to them and not to her? Is it related to the fact that she is a twin, where she might be competing with a more socially confident sibling, leading to a “three’s a crowd” dynamic?
Equally, when visiting friends what do you think is going on for her that causes her to get disruptive and to start showing off? Is it that she feels awkward in the new situation or is she not sure how to make friends or play in this context. The more you can “tune into” her and sympathetically understand what is going on for her, the easier it will be to help.
It is a good sign that when she “storms off” to her room, she is able to come back later and play nicely. This suggests that with a little a bit of time and space, she is able to collect and calm herself. What you want as a parent is for her to learn over time how to do this without having to storm off and without having to take so much time. It can be helpful to acknowledge and understand how she is feeling and then to help her think of other ways to express herself that are better for getting on with people.
Preparation is the key to helping young children deal with social situations. For example, before having a friend over, you might want to talk through the visit with her and help her plan. This might include helping her identify toys she wants to share (and others she wants to keep private and put away), as well as giving her a warning about the visit so she has time to prepare herself.
If competition with her twin is an issue, a good idea is to set up some inclusive games or structured activities (such as arts and crafts or decorating buns, etc) that make it easier for everyone to get along. You also might need to stay involved in the background to support your daughter, especially at the beginning, to ensure things start well.
Because she is so young, a fun way to help her prepare is to use a picture chart or story book, whereby you tell the “story” of the visit with a set of pictures and short sentences, such as everyone arriving at the house, your daughter saying hello (with a cheery voice), telling news to the visitors, picking out toys to play with the other children, having fun and saying goodbye, etc. Talking through the picture chart with your daughter is a great way of helping her identify good social strategies such as taking turns, joining in games and sharing with other children, as well as giving her plenty of space to express any feelings or worries she might have about the visit, and for you to understand how she is thinking and feeling.
It is unfortunate that you have stopped social visiting as this is both unfair for you and avoids giving your daughter the opportunity to learn. Probably the best way to tackle it is to use similar preparation strategies to those described above and to gradually restart social visiting. It is probably best to first choose a social situation that will be easy for her and for you. This could be with a family she is comfortable with, or with a child she easily plays with, while making sure the visit is for only a short period of time.
You might even initially choose a neutral venue such as a park or playground if that makes it easier for her to get started. The key is to make sure it goes well, so you can praise her and help her identify all the steps she did well. For example, you can talk about how she played nicely or said hello in a cheery voice or how even though she was nervous she still did very well. This will all build her confidence and is a positive way for her to learn all the necessary social skills for new situations.
While it is challenging to deal with your daughter’s grumpiness or naughtiness on social visits, a positive way to respond is to first understand the underlying anxiety on her part. Rather than simply regarding it as naughtiness it can be helpful to see this as indicating that she has not yet learned the social skills to behave well in what are challenging situations for many four year olds. In the long term as a parent, your goal is to support her dealing with her feelings and learning the social skills to behave well and get on with other people.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, August 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.