Sunday 16 December 2018

Dear David Coleman: My six-year-old can't cope with correction

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David Coleman

David Coleman

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

Q. My older son is six years old and his brother is nearly four. The six-year-old can't cope with any kind of correction. He has even threatened to jump out a window and die! When my son was only two or three years old he'd try to hurt himself if he did something wrong. We never used the bold step and preferred to discuss things with him rather than punishing him. He also can't cope with his brother being praised so we have to even it out by praising him too. Have I made him not resilient to any level of criticism or correcting him?

David replies: It is never a simple equation of parenting inputs leading to children's behavioural outputs. We also have to take into account a child's own temperament and the myriad of other environmental influences that will shape them and their reactions to the world.

So, your son's resilience, or otherwise, will be affected by his own temperament, as well as the ways in which you have dealt with him and his behaviour. It could be, for example, that he is very sensitive to any kind of correction, or perceived criticism, such that he fears it to mean that he has been cast out, or rejected, as soon as he senses any disapproval.

If that is the case, then his extreme response, of hurting himself, or threatening to kill himself, may be his way of trying to elicit a caring, or softer, response from you or his dad.

He may have had experiences, from when he was smaller, where your crossness about certain misbehaviours, turned to worry, caring or soothing, if he seemed intent on hurting himself.

We psychologists will often describe an unintended positive outcome from a given behaviour as a "secondary gain". So, even though he may have hurt himself as a preschooler, it might have the secondary gain of softening your attitude to him and reinstituting what he then perceives to be a more caring response from you.

In the same way, he may feel left out, or pushed to the side, when he sees his brother getting any kind of positive attention. So, even though your praise of his brother is not comparative (I presume it is just acknowledgement of your other son's good behaviour), your older boy may feel that if his brother's star appears in the ascendency, that his own star must be declining.

It strikes me that there may be a significant anxiety or insecurity underlying these kinds of care-seeking behaviours that he shows. His subconscious goal, in becoming self-destructive, may be to shift your attitude towards him from apparent disapproval (where he feels anxious) to care and concern for him (which increases his feelings of security).

This is the dynamic that I think you might like to address. You can certainly help your son to develop more resilience, or better coping strategies, such that he doesn't slip into self-destruction as a means to elicit caring from others.

The most effective thing you could help him with, in this regard, is to help him to learn to understand his own emotional reaction to feeling "bold", bad, rejected or disapproved of.

You do this by continuing to correct his misbehaviour when needed (without doing too much reasoning or rationalising), but adding in a lot of empathy about the probable impact of your correction.

So you might say things to him, like, "I wonder if it feels like I don't love you when I give out to you?" or "I think you might get scared when I get cross", or "you often seem really upset if you think someone might give out to you for your behaviour".

These kinds of statements, or others that tap into the dynamic I have described, will hopefully help him to become more aware of what is going on inside him. You can then address his care-seeking behaviour, saying something like, "Even if you are scared, you don't have to hurt yourself, I never stop loving you anyway." Or an alternative might be, "Even when I am cross about what you do, I still love you."

These kinds of emotionally supportive statements should help him to learn to cope with the difficult feelings, learning that they might come, but that they will go too, and that the underlying connection with you doesn't change, no matter how he behaves.

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