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Most of the time my 6YO daughter is quite happy and fully of energy. However when minor problems occur she over-reacts. i.e. falls down on the floor with her head in her hands and wails and cries. She's behaved this way for the last few years. This happens on average about once per day.

Example things that can trigger this:

  • Trying on clothes that are not comfortable
  • Making a blanket den which collapses
  • Making mistakes when writing (e.g. mispelling or writing a letter backwards)
  • Being rushed by us (!) when getting ready for school
  • Being told not to intervene when a boy (Bobby) has taken her friend's (Bobby's little sister) scooter, and she tried to grab it back. (We told her to let Bobby's mum sort it out)

I have seen her tolerance of some things improve (e.g. with writing she's slightly more accepting of making mistakes and crossing them out - but that's taken a long time with help from her teacher).

How can I help her react more calmly in these situations and become more resilient? I feel sad that she gets so upset about these minor things.

In the past I've gotten cross with her and said "Will you STOP CRYING! IT'S NOT NECESSARY!" which I know doesn't help. These days I try and speak to her calmly and ask her quietly "Why are you crying? What's making you feel sad?". I think it helps overall, but she still continues to over-react.

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    Great question! You state this has been happening for a few years. Has it been happening more frequently lately? If so, has she been experiencing more difficulties (e.g. first grade/pandemic/other?) of late? Finally (not an answer but the foundation of one possibility), are you familiar with the concepts of emotional literacy and emotional intelligence (it's ok if the answer is "No")? Thanks. – anongoodnurse Oct 12 at 15:04
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    I've been meaning to seek advice about this for a long time but never got round to it - was hoping she'd grow out of it. When she cried yesterday I made a reminder to try and find a solution. Another catalyst for asking is she is noticeably different to her peers in this regard. Her younger brother also seems more relaxed in comparison. I've heard of the two terms you mention, but I'm not familiar with them - I'll have a search thank you. – James T Oct 12 at 15:35
  • I want to point out something that has made my relationships much better in general: "over-reacts" is from your point of view. It is up to her to decide if she's over-reacting, no? I think what we mean when we say "over-react" is either a: I can't handle the emotion or b. the word strongly. – Anton Oct 13 at 19:12
  • Great question, i have similar problems with my 7 yr old son. I don't think it is anything too dramatic but it just means they need more help with dealing with their emotions. Some people have jumped to conclusions about autism, that seems a bit premature based only on a short description, IMHO. – Ivana Oct 14 at 9:25
  • Doesn't a six-year-old behaving that way "for the last few years" suggest the problem revealed itself around age two or three? Isn't that roughly when we achieve enough self-consciousness to start making our own choices? Isn't the behaviour you describe excessive, on several levels? If in any circumstances, let alone those you list, a child "falls down on the floor with her head in her hands and wails and cries" then that child needs specialist help. – Robbie Goodwin Oct 14 at 19:26
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It's pretty common for kids to lack (to some degree) resilience/distress tolerance, but fortunately this is something that can be taught.

It starts with kids understanding what their emotions are-- being able to notice and name "I am frustrated" vs "I am sad" vs "I am embarrassed". Overtime they can delve into more nuanced emotions, to say "I'm excited" and know how it's different from nervous, worried, or scared. Knowing and naming lots of emotional states beyond just happy and sad is a skill that will improve their emotional health and ability to relate to others for a lifetime.

Some simple ways to start learning this are by reading children's books about emotions, making a simple chart with a bunch of feeling words and faces so your children can mark how they feel visually (for example by pointing, or place the chart on the fridge and let them put a magnet on the face that shows their current mood), and asking questions (or making guesses) about their feelings throughout the day. "Are you relieved the homework is done?", "Are you anxious about your first airplane trip, or are you excited? A little of both?"

You can also model emotional regulation by explaining your feelings, and healthy strategies of coping, out loud to them. "I really wanted to go for my run but it's raining! I'm so disappointed! I guess I should take a few deep breaths and then I can think of something else to do... Hm, ok, maybe I can do a yoga video instead."

Once she knows what her feelings are, and that she can use her words to identify them, introduce some "coping tools" to help her tame her emotions. There are lots of possible coping strategies, but some examples include: taking deep breaths, jumping rope or jumping on a mini trampoline, listening to music, counting to 10, splashing water on her face to 'cool down', squeezing a stress ball, cuddling a soft toy, or writing or drawing about her feelings. It might help to have one tool that's always available to use 'on the fly' for minor upsets (like deep breaths) and something more involved to provide daily emotional comfort (like listening to music and painting).

It seems that you have already noticed how much more effective validation and emotional support is, compared to reprimand, when she does have a meltdown. In the big picture, part of the goal is to teach her to seek emotional support in a healthy way, and to essentially provide herself emotional support when the situation/upset is small enough for her to handle on her own. When she is in tears, use supportive phrases like:

  • I am here for you
  • It is going to be ok
  • This will pass.
  • I can see you feel ___ because ____. (i.e I can see you feel frustrated because your drawing doesn't look how you wanted.)
  • Sad (angry/frustrated/hurt/etc) feelings don't last forever
  • You can get through this.
  • Let's hug/ Let's take deep breaths together/ Let's use a coping tool

Eventually, she should start to internalize the messages that it's okay to have emotions, it's not "the end of the world" when she experiences a negative feeling, and that her state of acute distress won't go on for too long. Understanding that the worst and strongest experience of our bad feelings is usually short-lived and 'this too shall pass' is an important aspect of emotional resilience even as adults.

As you daughter starts to understand that she can survive upsetting circumstances, you can gently introduce the question, "Is this a big problem or a little problem?" You can give her examples of "little problems" (drew a letter wrong, tried on an uncomfortable shirt, her juicebox is empty), medium problems (skinned knee, argument with a friend, lost a toy) and big problems (hurt or in danger, being bullied, something genuinely upsetting has happened). Have her practice identifying big and small problems, and some appropriate responses to each. For example, small problems can often be handled by letting it go, or taking a deep breath and trying again. Medium problems may need a coping skill and perhaps help coming up with a solution, big problems usually need an adult to help.

Expect it to take a while for the idea that some problems (that truly feel huge to her) are actually small to sink in, but over time she should begin to build the internal sense of a proportionate response to her situation. Encourage her and let her know how well she's doing if she begins to use coping skills or identify reasonable responses to problems on her own. Resist the urge to scold or react in disappointment when she doesn't- remind her that she has the tools to handle this setback, that you will help her, and that her strong feelings are not forever and will pass.

For more information, you may want to investigate "zones of regulation", "Building distress tolerance" and "building emotional resilience", which are all related ideas but come at it from slightly different angles and schools of thought.

Here's some quick links on the subject, but you can find many more online. https://www.heysigmund.com/building-resilience-children/

https://liesaboutparenting.com/frustration-tolerance/

https://maxbrainfunction.com/zones-of-regulation/

https://healthyfamilies.beyondblue.org.au/healthy-homes/building-resilience

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    Great answer, thanks for all the detail and examples. Do you think as a parent you can ever be pandering to a child in these situations? Sometimes it feels ridiculous that she is 6 and getting tearful about misspelling a word. Also how would you handle it if she did something wrong like hit her brother and then cried when she was reprimanded? – James T Oct 13 at 14:09
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    I think most kids are past the need for this level of support at 6, because often self-soothing develops earlier. But kids do things on their own time. I do think that for a while she's going to need what will surely seem like an excessive, over the top amount of support to learn these skills. It will definitely feel like pandering to ridiculous drama. The problem is that she likely genuinely feels like her mistake it is an emergency (or maybe a concrete example of her insecurities?) and needs to learn that she can let it pass and isn't actually harmed by feeling any little bad feeling. (1) – Meg Oct 13 at 14:26
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    The key is that you support her but -don't fix it for her-. Let her experience the distress with loving support, get through it, and hopefully move on. You can't (and shouldn't) really prevent her getting upset, the goal is for her to realize that being upset is actually just a normal part of life and something she can handle. (2) – Meg Oct 13 at 14:29
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    "Do you think as a parent you can ever be pandering to a child in these situations?" Don't think of it as pandering, think of it as an investment of time that will pay off in the long run. Some adults never get to understand their own emotions - this is exactly what happens in cases of road rage and similar outbursts. – chasly - supports Monica Oct 14 at 20:23
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    A tantrum when given a boundary by parents is a little different from the "can't cope with even a minor failure" meltdown she has when writing a letter wrong or rushed. I would tell her something like, "I see you're upset that the conversation with mum didn't go the way you wanted it to. You really wanted mum to get the clothes for you! Waiting is hard, isn't it?" Then you can offer to take deep breaths together etc, but it's right not to drop everything to meet her demand. It's okay if crying is how she waits, but don't 'give in' and take back the boundary, I agree with your wife on that. – Meg 12 hours ago
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I would've commented on your question, but my limited reputation allows me only to directly answer.

There have been already a couple of other answers suggesting your daughter might be on the autism spectrum. Chances are, if she is on the spectrum, and she can talk, she's mildly affected (level 1 autism, very manageable with proper support), and you shouldn't worry too much at this point.

There are quite a few things you mentioned that are serious giveaways for a possible ASD diagnosis - intolerance of certain clothing (sensory issues), sticking to routine (when you rush her to get ready for school), resilience to change (how difficult it was for her to accept mistakes; autistics are often extremely diligent in their work). What seems to you like temper tantrums would actually be meltdowns, and they hurt. That's why she has her head in her hands. You won't be able to stop them, and yelling at her or ignoring her while she's in pain will only make things worse. When she tries clothing she doesn't like, that's because it hurts her as well; her senses are tuned differently to yours.

I really can't stress enough how important it is to get autism out of the way as soon as possible. If your daughter turns out not to be on the spectrum, all is well. If she is, you have the advantage to teach her social skills early on, and make the necessary sensory accommodations. She will grow up fine, at most a little quirky. If your daughter is on the spectrum, and you do nothing about it, normal parenting techniques will not work. You're looking at possibly years of bullying by her peers, a plethora of co-morbid mental illnesses, and an 80% possibility of unemployment in adulthood. Even if she's high functioning.

You've already given quite a few signs of autism, but here's a link with more: https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisprograms.com/lists/5-symptoms-of-high-functioning-autism/

Also, do a Google search on stimming and see whether you daughter stims. That's another sign of autism.

FWIW the answer you've accepted is on the right track; however alexithymia, or the difficulty/inability to identify and/or talk about one's emotions is very common (85%) in autism and may prevent you from seeing a positive outcome without professional assistance.

I wish you and your family all the best.

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    "If your daughter is on the spectrum, and you do nothing about it, normal parenting techniques will not work." As someone on the spectrum, I'd say that they're probably less likely to work, rather than incapable of working, depending on the intellectual capacity of the child and your definition of "working". It sounds like this girl might have more severe characteristics than I did as a child, though. – nick012000 Oct 14 at 3:39
  • Hi, some clarification: "intolerance of certain clothing" - the vast majority of the time she's happy wearing a variety of clothes - the example I cited was when she tried on an old school shirt that was too tight. "sticking to routine" - I think this may be due to my wife and I rushing her and perhaps overstating the importance of being on time to school. "resilience to change" - although she has been over-reacting here, she has shown signs of improvement. I'm not an expert but I don't think it's autism. She doesn't stim. – James T Oct 14 at 10:45
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    There is no evidence from the OP that their child is on the autism spectrum. What is described are tantrums that could be had by any child (with or without autism) - this immediate leap to pathologise the relatively common behaviour described is not useful. – Michael MacAskill Oct 14 at 22:53
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    "There are quite a few things you mentioned that are serious giveaways for a possible ASD..." Not true. Non-ASD kids can have sensory issues with certain clothing, and jumping to ASD (without any other true indicator) is alarmist in the extreme. -1 (I'm in my 60's and can't abide turtlenecks or tight long sleeves. I am not on the spectrum. I have dealt with kids who are. Even full blown sensory processing disorders can occur off the spectrum.) – anongoodnurse Oct 15 at 16:16
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    @unintelligible I don't agree that (in most cases) young children's tantrums are fake and manipulative. They're usually an outward expression of inability to cope with what's going on inside, like too-strong emotions, lack of self-soothing skills, or not knowing how to express needs in other ways. They may resolve when the thing that's upsetting the child is 'fixed', like demands met, because the need (or want) is met, but only in older kids that have been taught that tantrums are an effective way to solve problems are they a conscious manipulation. I do agree avoid ABA! – Meg yesterday
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It might be worth looking at different developmental disorders and matching what behaviours your daughter has with them. If you think that she might have one them speak to a doctor and see if you can get a diagnosis.

It is possible that she is Autistic. My girlfriend wasn't diagnosed with it until she was 30 despite having shown very obvious traits from early childhood. Showing her the list you had in your question she identified with all of them. As an example:

  • She can't wear tight/restrictive clothing for long periods
  • Sometime needs alone time away from people (blanket den)
  • Responds badly to sudden changes in plan, such as being rushed to leave the house

If you can get a diagnosis of a developmental disorder, it will help put behaviours into context, allow you to find specific coping mechanisms and allow you/her to find support groups where people share their experiences.

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    I think I've perhaps mispresented her :) "tight/restrictive clothing" - the context here was just trying on a school shirt from last year that she's out grown. "blanket den" - she's normally quite sociable - most of the time will play with her younger brother, or with friends if in the play ground. "changes in plan" - I think this may be due to my wife and I teaching her "being late is bad". Thank you for the suggestion though. – James T Oct 14 at 9:49
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    There is no evidence from the OP that the behaviour described is developmentally abnormal. Annoying yes. Pathological? Not without other evidence. Such tantrums are not uncommon amongst children of that age, and are best dealt with simply by not being responded to: they are quite possibly simply being maintained by a schedule of reinforcement (extra attention and so on). – Michael MacAskill Oct 14 at 22:56

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