Normal behavior for an 8-year-old girl, or signs of future depression?

I have two daughters; the older just turned 8 a couple of weeks ago. I’ll call her Vicki.

Vicki is, about 75% of the time, a fairly normal kid. She’s in 2nd grade, has some friends, loves to ice skate and play board games, reads Harry Potter and the Narnia books, likes to be helpful when it suits her, and gets along as well as can be expected with her 5 1/2-yr-old sister. She has a great sense of humor.

The other 25% of the time, she gets into deep, unpleasant funks. Typically these are set off by little things – being admonished (lightly) for misbehavior, or having trouble with piano practice, or just about anything not going exactly like she wants it to. She’ll storm away from all human contact, and only communicate through notes.

What’s disturbing, and really the reason I’m writing this, is that the most common message in those notes is “I hate myself,” sometimes along with “I’m stupid.” She most certainly is NOT stupid, and I can’t imagine where that notion comes from. She’s one of the smarter kids in her class, and we’re always happy to praise her hard work and good outcomes from that work. Her home life has no obvious stresses, except perhaps that her sister is precocious and better behaved, and so gets fewer admonishments/punishments for poor behavior.

When I try to get her to open up about why she hates herself, she refuses. She claims not to know. “I just do,” she’ll say. “I don’t know why.” She just gets more upset if I press her. I try to narrow it down with questions, like “Is it something at school?” “Is it something mom or I am doing?” At best, occasionally, I’ll get a “sort of” answer to one of these, but never anything more, and she steadfastly refuses to say anything else. She just hides under blankets, sucking her thumb and giving surliness to anyone who tries to draw her out.

She’s been doing this, off an on, for at least two years. Best case I can see, this is just some sort of attention-seeking behavior, and that ignoring it will make it go away. Worst case is some kind of real psychological problem that will only be made worse by ignoring it, and could lead to self-destructive behaviors later in childhood.

How can I know which it is?

Thanks for your time.

May I recommend The Highly Sensitive Child? I’m no therapist, and even if I were there’s not enough in your post to go off of, but that book might be worth a read.

Really sensitive kids are just one flavor of normal.

For an 8 year old to frequently feel that she hates herself is not normal. It could be a sign of depression, but it could be something else, too. You need to get her evaluated by a professional with expertise in child behavioral issues. Please do not ignore this.

I’m not a therapist either but I have a nine-year-olld daughter and three much older kids.

A lot of what you describe is pretty usual bright-8-year old stuff and yes, they can be manipulative and try to get attention by saying things like “i hate myself.” And that kind of thing can be exacerbated by the presence of a younger kid who may really be less subject to discipline/criticism, and is almost certain to be perceived that way by the older kid. And 8 year olds are often pretty dramatic about things like criticism and discipline directed at them.

But seems to me that if this is bothering you, you might want to talk with a child therapist about ti. The frequent thumb-sucking and withdrawal seems a little concerning to me (I’m not suggesting that every kid who sucks her thumb or withdraws needs therapy of course) and it might be that someone trained to talk to (and someone for you and your wife to talk with about the issue) wouldn’t be a bad thing.

I spoke to a terapist when my little girl saw a puppy killed by a car last year and was anxious and tearful for several days aferwards. The therapist gave me some ideas about how to deal with the situation and what to watch for. I never had to make an appointment for her, but it was very helpful and reassuring.

Don’t the vast, vast majority of kids that age blame other people or outside circumstances for their mistakes? “It’s not my fault I blah, it’s because Becky blahed first!” “I didn’t break the bowl, the floor did/the dog ran into the table.” etc? So it sounds like she’s internalizing more than is usual. I’m liking the “highly sensitive” suggestion above. Not that you shouldn’t criticize/punish her when she misbehaves, but you might find that taking a different approach will reduce the amount of self-flagellation she’s engaging in. I agree that at least a couple sessions of expert therapy would be very helpful. There may be a better way to correct her misbehavior that hasn’t occurred to you naturally in the course of parenting. Or maybe it’s a chemical imbalance… who knows?

That sounds a lot like me. A scary lot like me, even at this age to a degree. (Though I can get more severe, as people on this board can attest…)

Clearly, as I’m still this way, even if I’m a lot better than when I was a kid, I don’t know any surefire way to make it go away. I did suffer from depression as a teenager.

I think some of it can arise from perfectionism, especialliy if she’s the smart one. When you’re used to being smart or praised all the time, at that age suddenly when you just do something “okay”, or even do something wrong (for me it’s especially bad if I think I hurt somebody’s feelings) it feels like the worst thing in the world.

Because you’re GOOD, and you’re SMART. And doing something BAD or DUMB or INSENSITIVE is a total betrayal of your character. Everything is just atrocious and you feel like the worst person in the universe because… you didn’t get 98%+ on that test, or you made your friend sad, or you annoyed somebody. But the worst part isn’t necessarily that I feel like I failed myself, it feels like I failed everybody. I failed people who praised me and supported me, I failed the person who I disappointed or whose feelings I hurt. And I feel like nobody else is taking this transgression seriously, so thus I need to take it upon myself to give myself punishment. (Yes, this is utterly ridiculous, when you’re in a shattered mental state “ridiculous” seems “normal”)

But the thing is, since it’s so totally and completely irrational that it’s impossible to tell people why you’re sad. And shortly after you finally learn to recognize cause and effect, you quickly learn not to say anything because people try to guilt you out of it. You’ll say “I’m stupid” and they’ll say “why?” You’ll say “I’m a stupid piece of shit because I got a B- on that test.” Then they’ll say “when I was in school I was a C student, are you calling me a retarded sack of cowpie?” Or “How rude! Calling all the kids who scored lower than you stupid!”

Then you feel even worse because you insulted everybody and start making even more hilariously irrational judgments like “Well, it only counts for me! Everybody else is fine and has redeeming qualities! It only matters because I don’t have any.” And then they’ll say “Oh, so you’re better than everyone else and think you have to be held to a higher standard!?”

And then you go into some apoplectic depressive rage that makes you basically want to suffer forever. Not die. You feel like you deserve to suffer the worst hell forever. (And, for me, it’s always ME, I’ve never wanted anything bad to happen to anybody else in this state).

I don’t know what advice I can offer, sadly, and I sincerely hope your daughter is just going through a phase, or learns to deal with it better, or never gets as bad as I did. But hopefully explaining what happens to me gives you some insight.

The only thing I can think of is the counter-intuitive don’t praise her as much because she won’t come to expect it, but that seems really mean.

Your daughter exhibits similar behavior to what I did, growing up. My mom says that before I was even 5 years old, I would have these moods, yank on my hair and scream about how stupid I was. I turned out to have Bipolar II and ADD but I was not diagnosed until I was 30.

Tread carefully… If she’s sick she may need help, but being labeled as “sick” could be damaging and cause her further distress. I would consult a really good child psychologist or therapist.

Good luck to you and your family!

Everybody’s different and I know next to nothing about child development and psychology… but starting at eight years old and going on pretty consistently until 13, I hated myself too (after that I learned to hate adults instead). The golden years of childhood were gone. Some parts of school were challenging for the first time ever, which scared the ever loving crap out of me. Other kids were also becoming more complex, which muddied the waters of friendships and trust and boundaries. I wasn’t cute anymore. I wasn’t carefree anymore. I had more responsibility. It was a very hard time… harder than my teenage years.

So that’s my anecdote.

Sounds like Middlebro, He Of The Black Funks. Things which would make other kids get a bit sad, or pull up their big kid pants and do better next time, would send him into the Pits of Despair. At about your daughter’s age he wrote a poem about why there had been an eight bed at the Seven Dwarves’ house: they had been eight until one commited suicide. My mother gushed “ohmygosh, he writes poetry, as I used to!” and I’d be there thinking “damnit you bloody moron, your eight year old is writing about suicide! A kid that age shouldn’t even know what suicide is, much less be able to describe one!” Of course, my suggestion to maybe ask our doctor about it was disregarded; sometimes I wonder how did we manage to reach adulthood.

I’d speak with a medical specialist, it may not qualify as depression but it’s definitely not normal.

I do appreciate all the advice and anecdotes… thanks!

For all of Vicki’s surly moods, she usually has a decent sense of self-perspective. Today’s “episode” lasted about half an hour, and later she sat down and played the problematic piano piece with no mistakes. “See?” she told me, smiling. “It’s easier to play when I’m not so upset.” She was fine for the rest of the night. Often, when she’s hit a rough patch, she’ll be kind of embarrassed-with-a-smile about it afterwards, as she realizes she was being irrational.

So far, at least, she has never hurt herself or talked about hurting herself, let alone brought up the subject of suicide! :eek: So, there’s that. My wife thinks that we coddled her too much as a very young child, and so she never had to deal with setbacks or develop resilience to life’s unexpected turns. Now when things go wrong, she’s doesn’t know how to deal with it.

We’re lucky enough to live in a town with excellent public schools, and Vicki’s elementary school has a school psychiatrist available at all times. Perhaps I should start there, and see what she recommends. (At school, by the way, there’s never been the slightest sign of this. Her teachers always give glowing reports about her, including on the social side of things. It’s only at home that this behavior manifests. I wonder if that’s a good sign or a bad one?)

Thanks again!

I think it’s a good sign that it manifests at home, because it means she trusts you enough to be herself. Around her teachers and peers, she may feel obligated to play the part of a happy well-adjusted smart kid.

You might try this.

I’m not entirely sure that punishing someone for their self-hate is necessarily a good idea. 6:30 is a ridiculously early bedtime. Yes, kids do need more sleep, but that’s pushing it.

I admit I’m not a parent or a psychologist, but I was a severely depressed child and this would very likely have made things worse for me.

  1. I don’t like the idea of lying to your kids about something like that.

  2. In my opinion the only result you’re going to get is a kid who still has the scary thoughts but now does not feel safe expressing them to her parents. Seems unwise.

Clinical depression and suicidal ideation are astonishingly rare in children. Statements like “I hate myself” are seriously abnormal for anyone, especially a child. I would talk to a doctor and explore other alternatives before attempting to label the child as clinically depressed.

I think Jragon has made a lot of really important points. Sounds like how I was for sure. Perfectionism is a hard road but once you’ve started down it, it’s really hard to change. And I do think it comes, ironically enough, from being praised for being smart. I can’t think of what my parents could have done to make this better, though. Actually the best thing my dad did was just kind of ignore it when I pitched a bitch about how incompetent I was. Mom would try to talk me out of it which never worked. Just ignoring it maybe worked the best.

Agreed. “My recommendation for parents whose children are upset is to lie to them that they deserve a strict punishment, and that the punishment is related to their offense.” Bleah.

I once taught an 8-year-old girl who, among other things, said, “I hate myself” regularly. The way I handled it was to ask her, totally non-threateningly, why she hated herself: what was it that she hated? I think I had to push her (i.e., she said, “I don’t know,” and I explained that she probably didn’t much hate herself if she couldn’t think of a single specific thing about herself she hated.) When she described specific behaviors, I asked her if she’d like herself more if she diminished those behaviors, and then I got her to set a goal for how many times she’d engage in those behaviors each day, and I gave her a little book to help her track both the misbehavior and the substitute behavior she’d use instead. It worked.

Wow, I think that’s a terrible idea. All you do is teach the kid to hide her feelings from you and contribute to the self-loathing (What’s wrong with me that I feel things that are wrong and punishable?)

This sounds a lot like my son. He is currently seeing an excellent social worker to help shore up his coping skills for those times when he feels, as he puts it, “Really sick of myself.” It’s heart-wrenching as a parent to hear these statements and, as much as I would love to be able to say “Oh, don’t feel that way!” and have it magically work, I grew up with “You’re not sad/mad/depressed” and that kind of invalidation does not help.

ETA: Left Hand, every time I read one of your accounts of your actions as a teacher, I think to myself how fortunate your students are to have you.

+1. This is a horrible idea.

I say “I hate myself” all the time. It’s a step down from actively trying to punish myself for perceived failures. I used to destroy things I enjoyed, or injure myself, in the belief that I deserved punishment.

If you punish the child (or implement measures that appear to be a punishment) then you are feeding the notion that there is in fact something wrong with the child. If the child perceives that they are being punished for their failures, you are only confirming what they already suspect.

If this behavior doesn’t seem to be interfering with her/your life in other ways (ie, she’s still dong well in school, still has her friends, still enjoys herself, etc), I’d be reluctant to call in a proffessional. The way you describe it, it seems pretty well contained and she bounces back pretty quickly. The fact that it’s not a new behavior maybe is reassuring? It sounds like it’s probably just her way of expressing disappointment and anger, rather than a sign of real deep seated self loathing. Maybe a little melodrama added for effect. I’d go with Left Hand’s suggestion and use it as an opportunity to encourage self reflection and self correction.