Thursday 23 November 2017

Dear David Coleman: Our eight-year-old is very negative and lacks drive

Picture posed. Thinkstock
Picture posed. Thinkstock
David Coleman

David Coleman

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

Q. We have an eight-year-old boy who is extremely sensitive but boisterous, intelligent but lazy, and getting him to do basic things is always a challenge. The major issue at the moment is his negativity and lack of drive. Life is "boring" to him and he just won't put effort into anything. We are very frustrated as we both work hard at everything we do and this attitude is so annoying. We spend our days nagging him but nothing changes.

How can we turn this around? I feel that he has so much potential if he would just apply himself.

David replies: Bear in mind that your son is only eight years of age. Eight year olds are not known for their independent "get-up-and-go" mentality. Eight-year-olds rarely have life goals or future targets that they are aiming for. Mostly, they live in the now, of whatever is catching their interest at any given moment.

Because you and your husband are highly motivated, conscientious, hard-working and diligent, it might be difficult for you if your son seems challenging, but maybe your expectations of him are too high. Perhaps he just can't measure up to your standards, because he is only eight. Because he doesn't seem to "shape up" to your standards, you both sound like you are very down on him and critical of him.

It is unsurprising that he appears to be negative since you are also very negative about him. It sounds like he gets criticised for many things. It is hard to stay positive if you are subject to regular criticism.

After a while, he may come to believe that he is "boisterous" and "lazy" if that is how he is regularly categorised. It is hard to summon up any enthusiasm or energy if we have a very low or negative view of ourselves, based on the feedback of other people.

If your son was 18, then you may have very good reason to be concerned about a lack of internal drive or ambition. But I don't think you need to be concerned about this in an eight-year-old.

Most eight year olds will adapt their behaviour to the expectations of the adults around them. They will be motivated to do things for reward, or out of fear of punishment.

Sometimes, those rewards are intrinsic (like the fun they have when they play with friends, so they want to play more with their friends). Sometimes, the rewards are more specifically incentives ("you can have some story time as soon as you are ready for bed").

Similarly, when the consequences of their behaviour are negative (for example, they miss out on some TV time because they refused to turn off the TV the last time they were watching it), we hope that they learn to make different choices the next time (like turning off the TV when they are told).

It is unrealistic, however, to expect them to pro-actively remember to do chores, tidy their room, stop playing computer games, get themselves ready for bed or any of the other "basic things" that kids have to do.

It is our job to remind them of what we want them to do, to incentivise them, or to remind them of the consequences if they don't do what we want.

We may also have to guide them in these tasks, working alongside them, rather than sending them off independently to carry them out.

Naturally, any child might challenge any request. There could be any number of reasons for them to challenge our desires for them: they may be tired, they may not like what we ask, they may have something else they'd rather do, and so on.

So, rather than nagging your son and attending to his failings, try to focus on the things he does well, or the times when he does comply with your expectations.

"Catch him being good" and you may find that you notice his positive qualities and his strengths, and he becomes more motivated to continue to garner this praise and positive attention.

If you can recalibrate your expectations of him, you may also find that you are less irritated by his natural reluctance, at times, to do what you tell him.

If you can hold back your frustration with him, you may also find it easier to notice his skills and talents more than his deficits.

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