Saturday 19 January 2019

Dear David Coleman: My son is forever saying sorry to me. Why does he do this?

Clinical psychologist David Coleman
Clinical psychologist David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I have three children, aged eight, seven and four. My eldest is a boy and is always asking me: "Mum is everything okay?" I always assure him that I'm fine and when I ask him why he even asks me this, he says that he thought I was sad or upset. He'll also be very apologetic. If I ask him to do something and he says "no" its like he gets a fit of guilt and he keeps on and on saying "sorry mum" over and again. He's usually such a quiet boy and I don't often have to give out to him. Why does this happen? What do you think I should do?

David replies: From what you describe, I wonder if your son might be suffering from anxiety? Both the need to be constantly reassured that you are okay and the over-apologising, sound like they may be a way of expressing an underlying anxiety.

It is not uncommon for eldest children in a family to be anxious, or at least more anxious than their siblings. Typically, the first born in a family experiences lots of parental anxiety, as most of us are very stressed by this brand new baby, and doubt our abilities to be able to care for him or her properly.

It is also common for us, as parents, to worry about how our eldest children will cope in each of the new environments that they encounter. They are the first child to go to crèche, or to preschool, or to school for example. Our anxieties can often have a big impact on them.

Allied with any parental anxiety that your son may have experienced, he might also have picked up his own, independent, anxieties from his experiences with the world. So, perhaps he has had experiences with teachers that were stressful, or he may have had issues with friends, or there may be other family circumstances that have distressed him.

While it isn't critical to know if there are specific circumstances that may have been anxiety-provoking for him, it will help if you have any idea about stuff that might have happened that was worrisome for him. I'd suggest that you cast your mind back to when you first noticed that he started checking on you, or appearing over-apologetic. Try to identify if there was any particular thing that happened to him that might have triggered anxiety.

Irrespective of the potential trigger, or even if he has just always carried a higher level of anxiety than your other children, I think it is anxiety that you need to address, rather than simply getting him to stop asking you if you are okay, or to stop apologising.

The first step might be to help him notice his own anxiety. This can be achieved by making empathy statements to him whenever he asks after your wellbeing. Rather than simply reassuring him you are fine, say something like, "You seem worried about me." Or "You seem nervous that something is wrong."

If he is apologising profusely, try saying something like: "You keep saying sorry. Maybe you're worried that you have done something wrong? or that I'm going to be cross with you for your behaviour."

Statements like these will help your son to recognise, himself, that he seems to be expressing lots of anxiety. If you are aware of any background reason(s) why he might be anxious you can also name these for him, such that he might start to link these experiences with his anxious feelings.

When you have helped him understand that it might be anxiety that prompts his apologising, or questioning of you, than you can encourage him to reassure himself. So you could say something like, "you seem nervous that something is wrong. I think you can see from my face that I am not cross." Statements like these give him the chance to "interrogate" his own experiences and to challenge, for himself, his probable fears or anxieties.

You may find that creating extra opportunities to nurture him, like snuggling up together to read a book, or having quiet cuddle time just before bed, might help you and he to reconnect in a positive way. Warm and positive interactions like these might also help him to have greater confidence that he will be okay.

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