I just read a helpful response you had for a woman whose young boy has trouble with self-esteem and expressing his own opinions. It sparked me to write you because we have the opposite challenge with our 9-year-old boy. He's extremely bright, verbal, charismatic and creative. He has strong opinions on just about everything, and if things don't go exactly the way he wants them to, he gets extremely frustrated and reacts as a victim, as if people are "being mean" to him, saying things like "This is the worst day ever." We want to foster his sense of self and encourage him to have opinions, but we are concerned because A) it may be hindering him socially (reacting that strongly could be turning people away), and B) it's exhausting to us.
Self-esteem is an interesting subject. As you pointed out, its absence in a child often manifests as passivity; the boy in the article you referred to was very shy, seldom voiced his own opinions and went along with whatever those around him suggested.
But low self-esteem can also show up as bravado, with a youngster alienating others by behaving like a know-it-all, only to crumble in frustration if people don't acknowledge his wishes or agree with his beliefs.
Here's my advice:
• Take a ruthlessly honest look at who he might be mimicking. Quite often, a child who tries to one-up others has learned the behavior from someone he or she looks up to.
• Show interest in people for their value, rather than their status. If he sees that you are impressed with people in the public eye because of their wealth, power or position, he will believe that these are the things that matter.
• Put into words what you believe motivates him to push his opinions onto others. "I get the feeling it hurt your feelings when Joseph challenged your ideas about who should have won MVP in that game. You know a lot about basketball, and it feels good to have people looking up to you as an authority." By acknowledging what's behind his wishes you will help him feel heard and understood, reducing his frustration.
• Avoid lecturing or shaming. We often try to talk our children out of their upsets, saying things like, "Not everyone agrees with you! Why can't you respect other people's viewpoints? What's wrong with you?" Instead, try, "It's natural to want people's respect and admiration, and sometimes it backfires if you try too hard..."
• Help him feel sad. Behind anger and frustration is hurt and loss. It is entirely appropriate for your son to feel sad for a little while when he failed to get his point across or impress others. "I get it, honey. It's hard sometimes to not get the reaction you were hoping to get. I understand..." Just be there with him while he digests his disappointment without trying to fix his upset.
• Model gratitude and appreciation. Children take their cues from us. If your son sees you complaining or griping a lot, he will behave similarly when things don't go his way. Make a practice of pointing out what's good, and what you're grateful for and he will be more likely to follow suit.
• Encourage him to seek recognition for who he is, rather than what he knows. Acknowledge him for generous, and caring behaviors. "I loved how fun you were with your cousin, honey. You really have a way with little kids." Emphasize positive qualities that have nothing to do with being better than others.
Hopefully, these ideas will help your son step more into being comfortable in his skin so he can forge genuine friendships, create less drama and generate less stress for you!
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Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter at ParentingWithoutPowerStruggles.com.