Resilience in Children

My child is sensitive and anxious

Published: 07 Mar 2014
My child is sensitive and anxious

Hi Dr Justin,

My daughter is an only child and she is 4. Her dad and I are separated. She has seen a lot of pretty intense fighting between myself and her dad.

She seems like an anxious child, although she’s happy & social with other children (at preschool). I’m concerned that she won’t be resilient enough for school next year. Would this be causing a problem do you think? Is she not getting enough stability or boundaries from me perhaps?

She often says things like “do you still love me mummy?” to me. Is this normal that she’s often asking for reassurance? Can you suggest anything that I’m doing or not doing that could be causing this insecurity in her?

Both her dad and myself are a bit sensitive. But her sensitivity seems to be quite extreme. I love her dearly and it breaks my heart that she’s constantly crying and asking “do you still love me mummy?” and “please talk in a nice voice mummy”.

If I show the slightest bit of upset with her, or impatience or frustration, she bursts into tears. I don’t smack her or really discipline her much at all. I’d love to know how to nurture her and give her a good strong healthy sense of self.


Our children are a product of two things – their genetics (nature), and their environment (nurture). Based on the limited information in your email, I suspect that both may be operating against you to some degree.

My child is sensitive and anxious

First, you’ve suggested that you and her dad are sensitive. This may easily transfer to her genetically. Her temperament and personality may lean to an anxious and shy response to some situations. (The fact that she is doing well socially at school runs counter to this though.)

Second, your daughter’s reactions and responses may be based on the environment she presently experiences. She has seen heavy aggression, heard lots of yelling and arguments, seen unpredictability in her relationships at home, and probably faced other challenges.

We can talk about how all these things affect children generally, including stress reactions, heightened cortisol levels (stress hormones), increased anxiety, and so on. But I suspect you are already dealing with some of these issues, and rather than knowing the risks, you’d like to know where to from here.

So what do you do now?

First up – stability and predictability

You’ve asked whether your daughter is getting enough stability or boundaries. It’s hard to know because I’m not there to watch, but both stability and boundaries matter.

Your daughter needs you to be consistent and predictable. If she touches the TV today and doesn’t get in trouble, she needs to know that the same things will occur tomorrow. Kids thrive on predictability, structure, and routine. They can be confident when we are consistent, because the rules don’t change.

And your daughter needs rules. We don’t need to be draconian. Rather, she simply needs to understand that certain things are ok, and certain things are not. She should be aware that we follow a routine (with some flexibility when necessary), and those boundaries keep everyone functioning well.

When we set clear boundaries, behave consistently, and give our children predictable routines, they are less likely to be anxious because their world makes sense.

Second – Reassurance

There are three things every child needs to hear:

  1. You were wanted
  2. We were so excited when you were born
  3. You are loved

When our children know these three things and have them affirmed regularly, they feel reassured. Tell her – and do it often. Tell her the story of her birth, how excited her grandparents were, and any other positive details.

I suspect that your little one is seeking reassurance because she’s seen someone in her life leave. She may have a deep-seated, un-expressed fear that if she disappoints you she will lose you from her life too.

Third – Discipline

I believe that your daughter wants your unconditional love, but she feels it is being removed when she doesn’t have your approval.

When we make our love conditional, our children become anxious. They feel like our love is conditional when they see it switch on and off depending on their behaviour. They think, “Mum only loves me when I do what she says. When I don’t do what she says she doesn’t love me.”

While this may not be true for us, their perspective creates their reality.

This means that when you discipline her, you will do it best when you are sensitive, and when you approach discipline as a teaching moment rather than a time to remove your approval (and, in her eyes, your love).

So when she does something that requires ‘discipline’, make sure she doesn’t feel like she’s getting in trouble. Imagine she’s a neighbour’s child and you need to help her understand what the rules are. Chances are you’d talk to the neighbour’s child gently, give them the benefit of the doubt, and try hard to keep feelings warm.

This isn’t to say you become a soft touch. Kids need limits. But limits can be encouraged without shouting, threatening, hitting, or removing privileges.

Fourth – Nurture Her

You said you’d like to instil confidence in your daughter. Try the following ideas:

  • Each night ask her what she’s looking forward to
  • Help her develop competence in something she loves to do
  • Focus on how hard she works at things, and when she gets something mastered, celebrate it, and then give her something harder to do
  • Hug her and touch her. Touch matters.
  • Read to her – lots.
  • Find reasons to be together without devices. Walk, run, ride, swim, swing, play, wrestle.

There is a strong chance that losing her dad through your acrimonious split has impacted on your daughter’s confidence. But with a loving, structured, warm and responsive environment, she can reclaim her confidence. Fill her world with people who love her and activities that engage and challenge her, and she’ll be more likely to flourish.


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