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Is extremely off-putting behavior a sign of mental illness?


I am afraid that my nearly 9-year-old daughter might have a mental health problem. I’ve noticed the following behaviors for a few years, but they are getting more pronounced as she gets older. 

She is overly sensitive and cries quite a bit. She is extremely self-centered. She wants to decide what game to play, and when her friends voice a different opinion she quits and sulks. She engages in attention-seeking behavior, such as demanding that everyone watch her dance. She talks incessantly and makes untrue statements. She is overly affectionate, often hugging her friends while they pull away. 

Her behavior is resulting in her being excluded from peer groups. She says nobody likes her and she doesn’t know why.

She also excessively worries and is afraid to be alone. She won’t even go into a room by herself. Instead, she follows me around the house day and night. She needs a lot of praise, but when she gets it she only criticizes herself. She complains of physical ailments, but her doctors cannot find anything medically wrong with her. On the plus side, she is very bright and is doing well in school​ academically.  


Boy in a tree

If you have not done so already, we encourage you to talk to your daughter’s pediatrician regarding a referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist for a mental health evaluation. This evaluation can help determine if your daughter is struggling with a mental health issue and if further intervention is needed, such as counseling.

It is important that you discuss with your daughter how her behavior affects others. Do not shy away from it out of fear that it will hurt her feelings. Be kind, but be direct. She already knows that her peers are responding to her negatively, but she does not seem to understand why. 

It is important to teach her skills such as having a conversation, getting along with others, accepting criticism, listening to others, etc. Acquiring these skills will result in more positive social interactions with her peers. She will come to learn what is and what is not acceptable behavior.

Is your daughter involved in extracurricular activities like sports or dance? These activities provide a sense of accomplishment and bring her into contact with other children who share her interests. Volunteering is another good option. It causes your daughter to think of others’ needs rather than focusing on herself so much.

You might want to consider a parenting class to help you deal with your daughter’s behavior. You could also read the book “Common Sense Parenting: Using Your Head as Well as Your Heart to Raise School-Aged Children” by Ray Burke, Ph.D., ​Ron Herron and Bridget A. Barnes. This book contains information on the social skills previously mentioned and how best to teach these skills.