Tuesday 22 October 2019

Dear David Coleman: How can I help my young son to believe in himself?

David Coleman answers your parenting questions

David Coleman
David Coleman

Question: My eight-year-old son is an only child. He seems to have a low opinion of himself and gets frustrated easily if he feels he can’t do something, repeating, “I can’t do it” and “I’m stupid”.

In school he’s often afraid of getting things wrong and can make himself quite anxious at the idea of it, so rarely puts his hand up. When he calls himself an idiot or stupid, I, of course, tell him he’s not and give examples of ways that he’s not. I’m looking for ways to get him to believe in himself a bit more!

Answer: It does sound like his self-esteem is at a low-ebb. Before focusing on ways that you can help him to build up his self-esteem, you might also want to consider if the way in which he puts himself down might have some kind of secondary gain for him.

Even though putting himself down is, essentially, a negative thing, it does serve the purpose of generating lots of positive feedback from you. It sounds like you will always engage with him when he is negative about himself and you will describe lots of positives about him. So, maybe, he is subconsciously motivated to be negative about himself, as it generates lots of positivity from you?

Ideally you want him to become positive about himself, but he may not do this if he expects the positivity to come from you instead. In some ways, it is as if he expects you to solve his problems for him, rather than attempting to solve them himself.

If this may be the case, then you could try simply acknowledging that he seems to be upset with himself, or frustrated with himself, or critical of himself. However, try to avoid offering him a contradiction to his views. Instead, do point out that he seems to be very hard on himself and that maybe he’s not being very fair to himself.

This encourages him to be a bit more self-reflective. Part of our experience of making mistakes needs to be an evaluation of how we can do things differently to avoid the mistake in the future. That way, we learn that it’s OK to make mistakes and that we can learn from them and do our best to avoid them again.

Your son seems to see any mistakes he might make as catastrophic and so he either appears powerless in the face of errors, or sees them as such total and abject failure that he can’t bounce back. Either way, he makes little or no effort to try again.

While achievement is wonderful, and success does give satisfaction, we also need to learn that working hard at things, being resilient and bouncing back, staying committed to things even when they don’t seem to be working, are all valuable and important things too.

In terms of his overall self-esteem, this is where I think you need to target your efforts. It will help him if you can find examples of where he does try again (especially if it led to success). Rather than focusing on the success he may have achieved, help him to recognise how he engaged with the process of “trying again”.

Do offer him lots of reinforcement for the effort he puts into things, encouraging him to be proud, himself, of how much work he has done, or how hard he has tried, irrespective of the outcome.

Often, when our self-esteem is low, we will either discount our strengths, or will be so focused on our perceived negatives that our strengths never get a look in. With this in mind, help him to notice and appreciate his strengths. That might involve you noticing them and commenting on them, or simply reminding him to notice them himself.


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