Q. Our “middle child” Katie is 10 years old. We seem to be working harder with her than with her sisters as Katie’s never content; it seems she’s always looking for something else to buy or to be entertained by someone else. Katie’s inability to be happy in the moment is affecting how we interact with her; I dread when she walks in the room because I fear she’s going to ask for something, not simply enjoy our company or share about her day. I hate feeling this way about her and wish we had a more positive relationship. How can we teach Katie to be content?

A. While there’s a remote possibility Katie is depressed or has an unhappy personality based on an unhappiness gene, I think it is more likely Katie’s dealing with a perception facing many middle children: that you love her siblings more and give them more attention. You may believe you give her lots of attention and love and you may have, however, it is her perception that counts as she’s behaving relative to her point of view.

It’s not unusual for middle children to feel jealousy, inadequacy and insecurity as a result of growing up in an environment where they compete for attention. There is also the possibility, however unlikely it may seem, that Katie feels unloved or loved less than her siblings and having you buy her things is a small, but never adequate, proof that you love her. Should you give her more attention and buy her more things? The answer is “no.” Buying things and lavishing attention for attention’s sake alone could make her more dependent on you for approval without changing her thinking or behavior.

If a middle child can find a project she feels passionate about and can excel at, often her feelings of emptiness and loneliness are replaced with feelings of pride and accomplishment. The project fills the need to stand out and find self-approval as well as approval from the family and a larger audience. Other options include:

  • Have a serious talk with Katie, preferably when you are alone with her. Ask her questions like, “Do you think your father and I love you? Do we love you enough?” If the answer is “No,” ask, “What would it take to make you feel loved?” If the answer relates to “things,” talk about how love isn’t about belongings. Listen closely and avoid being defensive.
  • Explain the difference between need and want and get some feedback from her about her thoughts on this concept. In saying “no” to some of the wants, you might add, “You can get that when you grow up and can pay for it. I know you will study hard, go to college and get a good job.
  • When playing games with your kids, be sure to choose games where each child can get thoroughly involved as well as excel and get approval from the group.
  • Have a dinnertime conversation with your children about how they are responsible for their own happiness and finding happiness in their day. Ask each child to share one thing that made her happy that day.
  • Help the girls make collages or art about things that make them happy. This could be a starting place for conversations with each of them.

You can do this with their goals, too. Meeting one’s goals often brings satisfaction and happiness.

If nothing you try works, you could have Katie work with a therapist to get a better understanding of what is behind her inability to find happiness in the moment and to work on this problem. There are many adults who buy things to fill an emotional emptiness – adults who didn’t have parents like you to identify the problem and were willing to work to resolve it.

Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.

Got a question for Betty Richardson? Email us here and you just might see the answer in an upcoming issue!

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