My 7-year-old is hypercritical of his homework and grades. He will often cry over his homework saying "This is my worst work ever!" and "I'm stupid!" and "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 A's and B's. I tell him that he's not stupid and his work is good, but he just shakes his head at me and tells me he is and it's not. His teacher tells me that she doesn't see this in class. What could be causing his low self-esteem, and what can I do to help him?
A: It's quite obvious that the cause of "I'm stupid!" and "I can't do anything right!" is the natural proclivity for drama 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 self-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; 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 a psychological issue 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 is already experiencing. In short order, the child in question begins experiencing significant benefit from acting like he's got some black mark on his self-esteem. Don't misunderstand me. Your son is not "manipulating" you. A 7-year-old is incapable of coming up with such a complex plot. This sort of parent-child soap opera unfolds in the absence of intention.
In fact, 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 any credence. The next time he says he's stupid or can't do anything right, say, "You know, 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--say, "You must have forgotten. We are never going to talk about that again." And again, walk away.
For a while, his self-drama may get worse as he tries to get you to re-engage. If you resist the temptation, however, this should run its course in a few weeks.
John Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th St., Suite 26B, Indianapolis, Ind. 46240 and at his Web site: www.rosemond.com.
If you or someone you know has parenting problems, call the Parents Anonymous 24-hour confidential Help-Line at 892-2172.