When your sensitive child becomes possessive of their peers

Why do some children cling to their peers more than others?
Why do some children cling to their peers more than others? Photo: Getty Images

Q: What would you suggest to help a six-year-old who becomes very attached to cousins and peers in a not-so-good way? She's shy and introverted, but she's social once she connects with people. She's sensitive and feels things strongly. When she makes a buddy at school or in the family, she almost seems obsessed with that person. She has tantrums when time with that person ends, can be mean to others when she is with the cousin or friend, and refuses to follow limits that would be no problem if she were just with her brother and parents or at school. We limit play dates in large part because of this issue but can't necessarily limit cousin time because we want to be with family, of course. She's a very sweet, caring child but really seems unable to handle friendship-type relationships. Thanks.

A: Why do some children cling to their peers more than others?

It is developmentally normal for children to cling to their caregiver when they are very young (from birth to about age 4 or 5). As children mature, so does their ability to be physically farther and farther away from their attachments. You can (usually) see this in first grade. Many children appear to become more of "themselves" for a lack of a better term. Self-possessed. They truly have their own ideas and opinions, and these ideas are not formed out of just being different or disagreeable (some of the 2- and 3-year-old behaviour you may see).

This doesn't mean that children are not highly susceptible to peer influence; they are! Physically and developmentally, their brains are highly malleable, and many children are easily hurt by other children all of the time. There are scores of studies and books written about how six- and seven-year-old children are "bullying" (usually the domain of middle-schoolers) and forming hurtful cliques.

Six- and seven-year-old children, while maturing quickly, were never meant to be left with their peers to govern their own social lives and friendships. When left alone, the most aggressive or bossy child rises to the top and will dominate, control and intimidate the other children. This is not because the kids are "bad" or "good." This happens as a result of an insecure system. Essentially, an adult needs to bring leadership, direction and wisdom to children, and children need adults far more than as parents often think.

By now, you can easily see the faulty logic in the "sort it out yourselves" methodology. This usually leads to one child being dominated, shamed or ostracised.

You mention that your child is "sensitive and feels things strongly." A sensitive child is even more susceptible to being hurt by her peers because her emotional skin is so thin. While less-sensitive children have some natural guards that come into place when they are hurt, protecting their brains and hearts, sensitive children simply can't do that. They are feeling everything all of the time and cannot filter out the bad from the good.

This leaves sensitive children raw and more open to the slights of the world. Without a working filter, these children overattach to some children and have trouble breaking these attachments when it is time. Everything can feel just a little extreme.

So, what to do? Well, the No. 1 thing we don't want to do is to allow your daughter to work this out on her own. This is not an effective strategy because there is no adaptation or learning; she is just in pain. When we leave sensitive children to cope, they become more and more wounded, and no one wants this.

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What we can do is take a stronger leadership role in these dynamics. You are already smartly limiting play dates, so keep doing that for the foreseeable future. This doesn't mean that she will never have play dates or that you cannot have one child over now and again; you just need to be very judicious about this.

As for school, reach out to her teachers and let them know that she needs more guidance on her friendships. Often, this can take the shape of therapeutic friendship groups, but I prefer more adult supervision and having a teacher take your daughter "under her wing." Some of the friendship groups are nice enough, but some of them unfairly place the burden of change on a six-year-old's shoulders.

And yes, be with your extended family and her cousins. But be prepared to step in more. Keep your eyes and ears open for when the play begins to sound as if it might be going south and step in before the you-know-what hits the fan. If it makes you feel better and you summon some courage, let your extended family know that your family is working on play and friendships and you need a little support. You will be surprised (or not) to learn how helpful people can be.

When your daughter is tantruming and crying and feeling hurt, allow for all of these big feelings. While inconvenient and upsetting, it is good that these feelings are moving. This is what we want. Keep mirroring her big emotions back to her and stay close enough to offer hugs and loving support but aware enough to not push her through to the other side prematurely.

I know. This is hard parenting work.

Parents who don't have sensitive children don't understand how hard it can be to ride the emotional waves of their children. They can easily judge what they are seeing from the outside: "That child needs to toughen up!" or "Those parents are babying that poor girl. What will become of her?"

I would argue that it is our world that can soften, not toughen. And in the absence of our culture helping, it is our parental job to protect our children from needless hurt. Note that I said "needless." Again, your child will suffer (we all do), and your child will adapt. As her parent, though, it is your job and honour to help her grow and mature with as much relaxation and emotional protection as necessary. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

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