Lack of empathy in 8 year old, please help me!

(14 Posts)
Radio4andChocolate Mon 10-Sep-18 11:18:12

Apologies in advance, this is going to be long, I’m at the end of my tether with dd and just don’t know what else I can do.

TL;DR version: dd completely lacks empathy and I want help!

Ok, long version: dd is 8, nearly 9. She has never shown any empathy and is completely selfish. She is unhappy about her situation but doesn’t seem able to change.

Examples: she has never once in her life apologised for bad behaviour voluntarily. If forced to apologise, she will do it with bad grace/snarky tone, she might eventually apologise in a more sincere sounding way, but it is clear that this is just to get away from the consequences if she doesn’t rather than because she’s actually sorry. She has never shown any genuine remorse for having hurt someone else, either physically (although she’s not generally violent) or emotionally. She is always quick to defend herself and answer back about how it wasn’t her fault because the other person said or did something, she will never accept that she is in the wrong. If she is told off, the other person is ‘mean’ and ‘unfair’. If she is given time out, she still doesn’t show any remorse at the end of it. Even if it is very explicitly stated to her how her actions have hurt the other person, she just doesn’t care.

Another example: she loves reading. When we’ve read a bedtime story together recently I’ve twice got a bit emotional at the sad parts (I may be a bit hormonal at the moment!). DD heard my voice cracking and asked ‘Are you upset?’ [so it’s not that she can’t read emotions in others, she just doesn’t seem to care]. I said yes, because the story was sad, and didn’t she find it sad too? And she replied that no, because it wasn’t happening to her so why would she be sad? So again I tried to explain how what happens to other people (even fictional characters) can make us feel happy, sad etc. along with them, but she wasn’t interested.

She doesn’t have any friends and is miserable about it but won’t accept that it is her behaviour which is at fault. Not only will she not apologise to others, which I suspect won’t help her keep friends for long! But she is also very critical of others and unwilling to compromise: such and such a person is annoying because they talk [about a particular hobby which doesn’t interest dd] all the time, this other one is too girly, another one too bossy etc. She had one friend (and even them she was always complaining about), but she has been bullying her, so I’ve advised her repeatedly to drop the friendship and move on because it’s a toxic friendship. The girl in question will be friends with dd for a while and then start up with the bullying behaviour. Unfortunately, since she has no other friends, she keeps returning to this one and it goes in a cycle where they’ll play nicely for a few minutes and then fall out and she will come home upset because she’s made fun of her hairy legs or her weight or something (she is not overweight but is taller and larger built than the other girl, who is quite slight) and got other people to laugh at dd. I have tried to discourage the friendship (have stopped inviting her round for playdates) and encourage others but to no avail.

She is showing some signs of starting puberty and I just worry that with the additional hormone fluctuation now it’s going to get even worse.

I started out when she was young by trying to model empathetic behaviour, showing that I care about how she and other people feel. Talking about feelings and emotions. Explaining to her when her behaviour hurts other people. I didn’t consciously go out of my way to do most of this, just acted naturally … Then, over a year ago (so when she was 7), I became more concerned that she still didn’t seem to be developing any empathetic skills, so I stepped it up a bit – talk to her explicitly about how other people matter, how they have feelings too, how it’s important to think about other people etc. None of this seems to have got through and I am now at my wits’ end as to what to do. Obviously I keep to all the standard background environmental advice : she has a balanced diet, a regular bedtime routine and bedtime, doesn’t have access to the internet except rarely and supervised, does a couple of sports clubs … She gets plenty of attention and demonstration of empathy.

I’ve tried having a sticker chart to reward any signs of empathetic behaviour. It didn’t work, largely because there was nothing I could reward with a sticker. I’ve tried long conversations about particular instances of lack of empathy I witness so she can see a concrete example of what isn’t acceptable – e.g. blanking another child who was trying to talk to her because she doesn’t like him. I’ve tried to encourage her to do just one kind thing for another person each day and to talk to me about it, I’ve given plenty of examples of what a ‘kind thing’ might be (lending someone a piece of stationery [she hates sharing, despite every encouragement and example], writing a nice comment when she peer marks someone’s work, bringing in one of her old books to lend to another child and so on). She normally doesn’t manage anything at all, when she does it’s something forced, e.g. ‘I helped unload the dishwasher.’ Yes, she helped to unload the dishwasher because she was told that if she didn’t she wouldn’t have her toy, and then she did it with a grumpy face and a lot of sighing and muttering and complaining!

I have spoken to the school and her teacher last year said she didn’t care because dd’s academic achievement was on target and she was able to do what was necessary in the classroom (e.g. work in a group) so what went on in the playground didn’t concern her. Her teacher the year before tried to sort out the toxic friendship by splitting them up and encouraging other friendships, but couldn’t do any more than that (dd was only 6-7 at the time so her behaviour seemed less abnormal to me and more a case of late development of empathy within a normal scale). Her new teacher is difficult to get hold of but I’m not sure whether it’s worth bringing it up again or not.

I’m divorced from her dad. She does have regular contact and a good relationship with him but he’s more of a fun, weekend dad, he doesn’t help with any of the day to day parenting stuff.

I just don’t know what else to do. I wonder about trying to get her a psychological referral but don’t know how.

I don’t think, by the way, that she has ASD. I’ve been a teacher and worked with a lot of kids on the spectrum and she’s not presenting like any of them: normal language development, can understand body language (but just doesn’t care), tone of voice etc., strongly prefers imaginative play, no issues with routine etc.

Please, please help me. I really don't know what to do. I'm obviously failing but I don't know what else to try.


OP’s posts: |
Kleinzeit Mon 10-Sep-18 12:10:48

It does sound as if she is lacking some basics. Long explanations wont go anywhere if she doesn't have the basic understanding - imagine trying to explain sums to a child who doesn't recognise that "three sweets" are more than "one sweet".

So even if she doesn't have autism it does sound as if she lacks some (not all) of the same basic communication skills. Do keep on modeling empathy, but rather than trying to have long conversations with her try using some "social stories" with her instead.

Bear in mind that girls with ASCs often have better surface communication skills than boys do, they are often better at masking and may get along by copying other girls rather than really understanding. It's possible that although she can respond to body language her responses to body language are not as good as it seems. Autism isn't an all-or-nothing thing, sometimes abilities are blunted rather than totally missing.

There are two routes to help - the school is one, though you may have trouble persuading them to take an interest if she is coping with group work. That might change as she gets older and the other children move further ahead socially.

The other route to help is via the GP. The GP can refer to a paediatritian and/or CAMHS for psycological assessments. You might want to talk to a speech and language therapist to see if they can nail what is missing from her communication, there might be more than it appears. Though resources are very stretched so your DD may not meet thresholds for a referral unless things get worse. But since you are worried go to the GP, the earlier you flag up a potential issue the better really.


Radio4andChocolate Mon 10-Sep-18 12:20:18

Thank you for the kind response, I was so afraid I'd get flamed for my terrible parenting.

I have booked a doctor's appointment. The next available one is a couple of weeks away but at least I know I've done something.

OP’s posts: |
Kleinzeit Mon 10-Sep-18 14:24:46

Glad you've found a way forward. Just a few more thoughts, take or leave if they're not helpful ...

She normally doesn’t manage anything at all, when she does it’s something forced, e.g. ‘I helped unload the dishwasher.’ Yes, she helped to unload the dishwasher because she was told that if she didn’t she wouldn’t have her toy, and then she did it with a grumpy face and a lot of sighing and muttering and complaining!

If you have a child who never ever does a "good" thing it is fine to reward and praise her for a "nearly-good" thing. If she can't be empathic it is fine to reward her for clumsily doing what you told her to do. The hope is that she reluctantly does something then you reward her and praise her so in future she associates "doing the dishwasher when asked" with praise and compliments and rewards, so she does it more readily next time and with less grumbling. And she starts to learn that being helpful and co-operative is a good thing.

Bringing a book in to share with another child who isn't her "best friend" might be too much for a lot of children, classroom social dynamics being what they are. Given that your DD is struggling it might be better to start very small. Even a "social story" on responding to people who say hello to her might be a starting point. You can always branch out later.

I wouldn't necessarily discourage her one and only friendship. Rather than being "toxic" it might be two children with social skills difficulties rubbing each other up the wrong way, maybe DD was tactless or unkind to her friend sometimes as well. Kids do learn from playing together, even if it is the hard way. So maybe instead of avoiding playdates with her can you structure and supervise the playdates so the girls are actively engaged and less likely to get cross or pick on each other? DS (who has an ASC) didn't have many playdates and after a bit of free play I used to call DS and his guest into the kitchen to decorate biscuits, they enjoyed it and it kept things pleasant.

I found The Unwritten Rules of Friendship helpful, even if your DD doesn't exactly fit one chapter some of the individual sections and exercises might help you tackle some of her specific issues.

selly24 Mon 10-Sep-18 16:05:29

Please don’t recoil at this term but your daughter displays high levels of psychothapy.
We are all ‘ on the spectrum ‘ to a greater if lesser extent.
This can be a positive trait but is difficult to accept under cultural norms.

I’ll find the article, book, author I first read about psychopathy - a few years ago..

selly24 Mon 10-Sep-18 16:14:42

Sorry for duplication above
Here’s the link

Radio4andChocolate Mon 10-Sep-18 20:09:18

Thanks for the advice and links/ book. I'm not scared of the term psychopath, but I have read a bit about it (it did occur to me before) and it doesn't seem like a good fit for how she presents. I know, as you say, that it's a spectrum rather than a switch, but it still doesn't seem quite right.

Anyway, if we did manage to get a psych referral and they diagnosed something along those lines or something on the autism spectrum or whatever, it would be fine. I guess what I need right now is coping strategies & ways to improve our and I'll leave the labelling to a professional. I will take a look at the friendship book, thanks.

OP’s posts: |
LethalWhite Wed 10-Oct-18 22:32:29

Sounds to me like it could maybe be ASD, as others have said it presents differently on girls.

Girls tend to ‘mask’ better as they learn social rules easier, but this becomes harder as the rules become more complicated.

I.e she can recognise you are upset when you are reading the book as you sound upset and wipe your eyes etc, but doesn’t understand why you are upset as the story in the book hasn’t happened to you.

Piagets ‘theory of mind’ explains this well. At some point in early childhood (6ish I think) children start to understand that other people have minds of their own. The classic experiment is someone putting down an object, e.g a toy, then leaving the room. The toy is moved and the child is asked where the person will look for it. The young child/autistic child will say the new location, as they cannot comprehend that the other person is a separate ‘mind’, who hasn’t got their experiences or insight. NT children gain this skill around 6-8ish I think, but autistic children don’t. Some of what you’ve said about her behaviour sounds similar to this.

The GP seems like a good place to start flowers

enidlowrij Fri 19-Oct-18 22:59:09

Buy some books on mindfulness for her. But also let her read some stories like humans of new York or watch some refugees, even like parents and families of those who have lost a child to bullging there was one on ellens show and they had a film, sometimes children need to see how lucky and privlaged they are. Sounds extreme but honestly some kids feel like their problems are more than everyone else's and need to see a bit of reality for what the majority of the world is going through.

NinaManiana Sat 20-Oct-18 19:08:46

I don’t have any advice, but it sounds like you’re doing a brilliant job, and she’s lucky to have such a nice mum. Some kids just are selfish - one kid i was at school with comes to mind who sounds just like your daugher. She was just as selfish until she became a teenager (her selfishness didn’t stop her being popular, as she was pretty, rich and bright), and had her heart broken by a boyfriend. Something clicked and she suddenly ‘got it’.

beclev24 Sat 20-Oct-18 21:07:13

In the nicest possible way OP it sounds like you are quite critical of your DD and I'm sure she is picking up on that and feeling defensive. It is hard for people to be kind/ generous/ empathetic unless they feel loved and cherished and that people are empathetic to them too. You can't punish/ reward someone into being empathetic- all you can do is force them into certain behaviors (grudging apology etc). These are feelings that have to grow organically and they start with feeling good about yourself and the feeling that others love you and aren't critical of you.

Check out hand in hand parenting- it's a really interesting approach and can be counterintuitive. Here's one article about apologizing, but worth looking at the whole system/ philosophy.

FWIW I have an 8 year old DS and he also does many of the things you describe in your daughter (quick to defend himself, very rarely spontaneously apologizes etc)- I think people are more forgiving of boys on this. I have found that the 'kinder' we are to him, the more he can be kind to others.

orangetriangle Thu 25-Oct-18 19:20:23

I would day it could be ASD it prevents differently in girls and yes you can have imagination and have ASD

LilyWaters1 Mon 23-Nov-20 08:19:59

I've just stumbled across this old post and just wanted to reach out to the Mum and say me too!
My daughters father was an abuser, I left when she was 6.
She showed exactly the signs you've described throughout childhood, as well as OCD traits, need for control around everything and everyone, and obsessional copying of other children, criticising others, manipulation.
I considered ASD, professionals ruled it out, by age 14 Id lost total control of her, she was sexual promiscuous (but not active) sending nudes, watching pornography, obsessing about love interests to the point of stalking.
She is now 17, manipulative, cunning, emotionally and mentally cruel and abusive, no sense of direction, drawn to chaos, no empathy, obsessional about relationships, revenge seeking.
I screamed all these issues from the rooftops in pre adolescence, I called the doctors EWMHS, the school, social services, the police and was never ever helped because she would twist things to say I was mean to her (punishments like taking her phone for sending nudes) she would also move in with friends families making up stories of being neglected, her sisters being favoured all of which wasn't true.
She was violent once at age 8 to me, other than fighting with her sisters no other violence until age 13, since then I've been punched, kicked and spat at, had objects including glasses thrown at me (I was pregnant at the time).
She would play games like lay on my bedroom floor and refuse to leave, stand in front of the television, follow me around calling me names, sit in the family bathroom and refuse people needing the toilet.
It's been relentless and the symptoms you describe are almost identical to her at age 8/9/10, it went up a serious notch at 12/13, please get the ASD evaluation, and if it doesn't fit, go private if you have to and get conduct disorder or ODD(all they will diagnose in children) on the record so as you can be taken seriously later down the line.
My 17 year old is now in a romantic relationship with a younger boy, it's been 4 weeks, she's manipulated her way into living with his family, and is scratching biting slapping him as part of their 'relations' she has frequently watched fifty shades (which I despise) and seems to be into this sort of thing.

Greenfem Tue 22-Dec-20 21:07:42

@Radio4andChocolate I would be so grateful for an update. How is your daughter now and what help from the GP or others did you get? We are experiencing the same with our seven year old son and have done all the modelling and support we feel we could give since he was born but are considering professional help (where to start?); I could relate to so much of what you have written. We don’t feel he’s ASD or a psychopath (noting these were suggested by others commenting on your post) but selfishness, lack of remorse and empathy is negatively affecting his life and those around him, and doesn’t appear to be evident in his peers.

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