QOver the past several months, I’ve noticed my 6-year-old-son saying things such as “I’m the worst” at something or “You don’t love me.” His sister was born in September, and he adores her. We’ve worked hard to make sure we’re still making time for him, and I’ve tried to compliment specific things he does well (instead of just generally saying, “You’re great”). He has also seemed more argumentative lately. I frequently hear, “I can do whatever I want,” “Today is not a school day” and many other “The sky is not blue”-type statements. I try not to engage in the nonsensical arguments, but if it is a school day, I do have to get him there. This is a lot. I guess I am most concerned about the negative self-talk. I’ve considered looking into therapy and wonder what you would consider when making that decision?
AWhile I do not know much about your family dynamics, let’s see if we can understand why your son may be stuck in this arguing cycle.
In the developmental world in which I work, there are two points that stick out to me in trying to understand your son: 1) The child’s brain always has a reason for what it is doing (meaning he is not purposely planning to be obstinate and disagreeable). And 2) regular and routine opposition is not a behavior problem; it is a relationship problem.
Before you panic about your relationship, I am not accusing, or assuming that you have a poor relationship with your son. On the contrary, you are clearly caring, observant and very much wanting to do what is best. The tough part of parenting is that even when we are trying to do our best, we still may not be giving children what they need.
So, let’s take a moment to understand why children are obstinate and uncooperative, as well as why a 6-year-old may be behaving like this.
First, it is completely normal for a child to be uncooperative. Three- and 4-year-old children are especially known for taking the “path less traveled” at inopportune times. For young people to mature and become their own person, they have to use their own mind and find their own voice. And because your son’s brain is young, his attempts at independence are messy. It isn’t personal. It is growth, and it is a good sign. Yes, some opinionated obstinateness is good.
But what happens when an older child gets stuck in this argumentative stage?
One thing I notice is the dynamic of your son saying, “I am the worst,” and I am guessing (but I could be wrong) that you are responding with some positive and maybe cheerleader-y language. Something like: “No, you’re not the worst! I love you! Why would you say this? You are the best little boy I know!” This is almost a reflex for parents. When someone you love as much as your child says something disparaging about himself (true or not), your first reaction is to jump in and deny that feeling, fix it and cheer him up. While this is not a tragedy, it is not improving your child’s behavior. That’s because whatever emotion is compelling him to express these thoughts is not satiated by praise or fixing. And that is true for all humans.
Additionally, he is extending (not consciously) the rope of struggle when he tells you that he is the boss of himself. Chances are pretty good you want to explain, lecture and show him who is the boss (you), but this is a reactionary and ineffective move.
First, stop arguing with the “I am the worst” and “I can do anything I want” statements. The argument waters the fight, and as my teachers have taught me, whatever we pay attention to grows. He knows he has to go to school, as do you. There is really nothing left to say.
Second, go ahead and agree with the feeling you are hearing. When he says he is the worst, you can say something like, “Sounds like you are having a down day, buddy. What is in your heart?” He will probably look at you as though there is an alien sprouting out of your head, but don’t let that deter you. Keep going for the feelings. And when he makes a power play about what you can’t make him do, go ahead and agree. Say, “Yes, you are in charge of you! This is true and good. And we are going to school.” Done and done. The realest real truth is that at 6 years old, unless you want to make it a social services moment, you cannot make him do much of anything. In those rough moments, just navigate with grace and strength, and do not get drawn into a war of wills with a 6-year-old.
Also, I love that you are making more time for him. Keep doing that, and make sure that these are conversations and activities that light up his eyes. Make sure you are doing more listening than talking, and go ahead and test some waters with him. You can say, “Man, it cannot be easy to have a baby sister in the house. It was just us for almost six years!” See what he says. Just wait. Don’t go straight into the feelings, such as “You must feel sad and threatened by all the attention we pay to the baby.” I am guessing he will balk and shut down if you do.
So, make gentle and small inroads into his heart. Cuddle him as if he is the baby. Show him pictures of when he was born. Tell the stories and laugh with him. Cultivate a feeling of warmth and affection, and let him know that, no matter what, he is the special first boy in the family. He is yours. See if that can’t slow down the attention-getters of “The sky isn’t blue” and more.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Feb. 28.