Q: My seven-year-old is hypercritical of his homework and grades. He will often cry over his homework, saying, “This is my worst work ever!” or “I’m stupid!” or “I can’t do anything right!” None of this is true, of course. He’s very intelligent, in fact. When I go back through his school papers, they are mostly As and Bs. I tell him he’s not stupid and his work is good, but he just shakes his head and tells me he is stupid, and his work is not good. His teacher tells me she doesn’t see this in class. What could be causing his low self-esteem, and what can I do to help him?
A: Your son’s declaration that “I’m stupid!” and “I can’t do anything right!” is the natural proclivity for drama that is possessed by all children, and what’s causing it to get worse is the fact that he has an audience—you. That he doesn’t shout these things out in class on a daily basis speaks to his awareness of social realities. In other words, his desire to have other kids like him and want to play with him is not compatible with shouting “I’m stupid!” in the midst of a class assignment.
Your son’s dramatic outbursts are examples of what I refer to as “junk talk.” It’s junk for two reasons. First, the child is saying, in effect, that he is junk; and second, because talk of this sort, when it comes from a child whose life is good and whose problems are all in his head, is of no significance at all. Unfortunately, today’s parents tend to see psychological issues behind anything their children do that is even slightly off center, so when today’s kids talk junk of this sort, today’s parents tend to ascribe great significance to it. Then they make the further mistake of trying to persuade their junk-talking children that they aren’t junk.
These kids suddenly find themselves at the center of parental attention and concern. Unwittingly, the parents of a junk talker start handling him with kid gloves, afraid of causing him more psychic pain than he’s already experiencing. In short order, the child catches on that he’s getting a significant benefit from acting like there’s a black mark on his self-esteem.
Thus, your son is every bit as ensnared by this as you are, the difference being that whereas he does not have the power to terminate the drama, you do, and you can do exactly that by simply no longer giving your son’s junk talk any credence. The next time he says he’s stupid or can’t do anything right, you say, “I believe I’ve said all I can about that. Obviously, nothing I’ve said has changed your mind, so I’m not saying another word about it, ever.” At that point, simply walk away. Once upon a time, this was known as letting the child stew in his own juices.
When he brings it up again—and he will, believe me—you again say, “You must have forgotten. We are never going to talk about this again.” And again, you walk away. F or a while, his dramatic exclamations may get worse as he tries to get you to re-engage. However, if you resist the temptation to comment and reassure, this problem should run its course in a few weeks.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the C enter for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. F or information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.