Q: As a result of a birth defect, my two-year-old daughter has had numerous facial and eye operations. Because of all the stress, she is very attached to me. Her brothers are 18, 16, 13, and 9. Some days she will choose one of them to be close to, her usual favorite being the oldest. Other days she won’t want affection from any of them. She seems to have a particular dislike for the 16-yearold. He tries desperately to get her to give him a hug or let him read to her or play with her, but she’ll have nothing to do with him. She also has a strong dislike for her father. On the other hand, she is very secure in going to any nursery or Sunday School program run by ladies, and she likes to play with little girls. I think all this is related to the early stress brought on by her medical condition, but I’m at a loss as to how to get her to begin showing love toward her brother and her father.
A: The fact that your daughter is selective about which members of the family she chooses to reject says that this issue is not directly related to the medical issues of her infancy. Besides, I’ve heard of this “attention overload disorder” developing in young children who’ve had no early health problems.
The more likely explanation has to do with the huge amount of attention she received and is obviously still receiving from family members. Under the circumstances, even a very young child quickly learns how to sustain a cyclone of concern and anxiety swirling around her.
By no means am I suggesting that your daughter is manipulating the family. She’s much too young to be thinking the issue through to that extent. I suspect this situation came about by accident and was simply one of many that could have developed otherwise. One day, she may have become upset when her father or brother tried to pick her up and cuddle her. Everyone present reacted with great concern, and the proverbial dominoes began falling. From there, the more selective she became about whom she accepted affection from, the more concern and attention she received from adults who feared her rejection, and the more selective she became. And so on.
At this point, the well-intentioned effort family members are making to get her to stop rejecting the affections of her father and brother are only feeding the problem. The good news is that this issue has not had time to embed itself too deeply in the family dynamic, so it should be a fairly easy matter to exorcise it.
I suggest that the solution to this attention overload disorder is a variation on old-fashioned reverse psychology. And it’s simple to implement. You, your husband, and the 16-year-old should simply stop making any affectionate overtures toward her. That will almost certainly cause your daughter to begin wanting attention from them, but they should be very conservative about giving it, especially at first. In the meantime, I strongly recommend that everyone begin treating her as if she’s simply another child instead of a special case who needs to be handled with kid gloves. If you don’t, then her early medical issues will pale in comparison to the tyrant she is capable of becoming.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.