cfmom asks:

When reprimanded, my 6 yr old son occ. says things like, "I know you hate me" or "I'm just a bad/stupid boy." How should I handle these statements?

He usually has a lot of self-confidence, is outgoing, smart, and fairly well-behaved. He will sometimes make these statements in response to even mild discipline.  I have always followed discipline up with a talk about what he is being punished for and why.  I never call him names, but he will sometimes accuse me of calling him stupid, even when he really knows I never would say that to him.  The behavior is random.  Sometimes he responds very well to correction.  I have noticed that he does this more when he is tired or has a lot on his plate (for example, he just started first grade).  
In Topics: Discipline and behavior challenges
> 60 days ago



Aug 25, 2010
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What the Expert Says:

I imagine it must be very puzzling to see your smart and talented young boy talk such silly nonsense about his worth and his perception of your feelings about him. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for capable children (and adults, for that matter) to doubt themselves. I suspect that he is healthy and happy, but he may have some underlying fears and concerns about his worth. These sorts of concerns tend to be emerge when a child gets any kind of feedback about themselves that may be construed as negative. They tend to internalize it as, "See, you are stupid. You messed up mom's books. Just further evidence of how dumb you are."

Now that you know your son harbors these kinds of thoughts, you can keep this in mind as your provide feedback to him about his successes, failures, and misbehavior.  

This topics reminds me of the research of Carol Dweck at Stanford University (I have included a link to an article discussing her theory in greater detail below). She has studied the different ways in which children interpret success and failure extensively. She has found that children either have a "fixed mindset" or a "growth mindset." The mindset refers to a child's theory about the origin of ability. Some children believe that your ability in any given area is dependent upon innate qualities that you are born with your ability (fixed). For example, some individuals are born with a "good" brain and are very intelligent, allowing them to achieve a great deal.

On the other hand, the growth mindset refers to the idea that ability is malleable and greatly influenced by the effort than an individual expends. Dweck has found that children with a fixed mindset tend to give up in the face of failure because they interpret their difficulty as an indication that they're not smart (something out of their control). Whereas, children with a growth mindset tend to persevere and try even harder in the face of a setback because they believe that their effort will be put to good use and will get them going in the right direction.

So, what do I do about it?

1. I would encourage you cultivate a growth mindset in your son, so that he can begin to see that a setback does not mean he is "stupid" or "unloveable." Rather, a setback is an opportunity for him to learn an important lesson and to apply that lesson to new situations in the future. With effort, he will be able to overcome the situation.

As you have been doing, when he misbehaves, continue to reassure him that you love him, but you cannot accept his behavior. Let him know that there are certain rules that adults know about that children must learn and it is your responsibility as a parent to teach him. Let him know that you understand that it will take some time for him to learn some of these things (some situations will be harder than others), but you will continue to guide him, and with effort, he will learn the appropriate behavior.

2. Role-model a positive growth mindset in your own actions. As you struggle with problems in, and outside of the home, talk about your experiences, what your learned, and how you plan to try harder next time. For example, if you forgot to add enough baking soda in the cake, share your disappointment with the final product, but let your son know that you learned about the importance of following each step of the recipe and staying focused while baking in the kitchen. Your example will inspire your son and help him to see that mistakes are normal and acceptable.

3. I have included a recent article I wrote on self-esteem boosters below. Hopefully, you will find some useful nuggets in my 10 suggestions for supporting your child.

Warm regards,

Laura Kauffman, Ph.D.
Licensed Child Psychologist JustAsk Expert
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