Q: My wife and I both work, and she’s a doctor with irregular hours. My son is 6, and my daughter is 1 (and one is on the way). My son recently has had a lot of issues with anger and confidence, to the point where he will have an outburst and say that he is going to kill the person he is angry with. At times, that claim changes to he is going to kill himself so he won’t have to deal with the difficulties. Many times he hits and takes his frustration out on his younger sister. He also seems to have very low confidence, saying that he is ugly and stupid. He is the shortest kid in his class. Kids call him small, and he minds it. We’re concerned about how to raise his confidence and how to avoid any real issues with his claims of wanting to kill others or himself. For a kid his age to use this language is scary. Is it depression? Does it all have to do with confidence? How can we help him?
A: I know this language is upsetting; thank you for writing about it. You would be surprised to know that there are many parents who hear this same language from their children. Does that make it normal? Yes and no.
First, when children say they want to kill you or kill themselves at just 6 years old, they usually are not being literal. I say “usually” because I am sure there are extreme cases, but this is very rare. If you have concerns about his mental health, please seek professional support through your pediatrician.
I have been reflecting on the word “confidence,” and the question that keeps coming to me is “Can you teach or give confidence?”
No, you cannot.
Confidence, for children, is a result of feeling accepted and safe. Think about that for a moment. Confidence, or that “venture forth” chutzpah we see in many children, comes from a deep place that can be cultivated whether both parents work or not. Confidence can be inspired by caring adults, and it can be recognized and grown — but it cannot be given. The ability to feel confident can differ from child to child and temperament to temperament. For instance, it may take a child who comes from two sensitive parents a bit longer to be confident, as it is harder for that child to feel safe and easy in the world.
And typically, the younger children are, the less confident they feel. Their world encompasses only the adults they love. They are not as concerned about their successes in the world; their primary concern is feeling safe and loved.
So instead of focusing on confidence, let’s look at the deep frustration your son is experiencing. He is short. He knows it, you know it, and apparently his classmates know it and draw attention to it.
Six-year-olds do not want to be different from their peers. Friendships and competition can become important, and developmentally this can be a time of great cruelty among children. Children are quick to point out differences in one another, and they use these differences to separate into groups. For boys especially, smallness is equated with weakness, and you will see the more athletic boys begin to rise to the top of the peer group, mirroring what we see in American adult culture.
I am guessing that your son is hurt deeply by being the smallest in his class, because for him this is the ultimate level of not fitting in. And there is nothing he can do about it. The helplessness compounds his frustration and hurt. The frustration results in eruptions of violence.
And there are multiple types of violence and anger here.
Eruptions of violence speak to a deep frustration in a child. School is hard, but what else could be frustrating to him?
I am guessing that every time he hits his younger sister, talks about killing and death, and calls himself “ugly,” you swoop in with consequences, logic and solutions. “Don’t say that you want to hurt me; that is unkind and unacceptable.” “You cannot hit your sister; she is only 1 year old!” “You are not ugly; you are the most beautiful boy in the world.”
I get it. I would say those things, too.
Our parenting instinct is to jump on top of this kind of violence and ugliness. We feel the suffering, and we want it to stop. But that isn’t going to work.
How can you help?
1. Calm yourself down. Stop focusing solely on his behavior and how to fix or stop it. See the behavior as a conduit for his frustration of feeling left out and unheard. Get past the misbehavior and go to the root of what is causing it.
2. Help him to feel the futility of what hurts him. This means that you allow him to feel angry and sad, and you place a boundary and name the emotion.“I am not going to allow you to hurt your sister, and it must really hurt your feelings when people point out that you are the smallest.” Or “It must make you feel pretty left out when the other boys don’t pick you to play. Let’s get those feelings out in a safe way.” If placing the boundary elicits more frustration, just go for the emotions.
3. Find a safe way for him to get the frustration out of his body. It is unrealistic to expect your son to process all of his feelings verbally. I would even argue that most adults could use a healthy way to let frustration and anger out of their bodies. Have him stomp, yell into a pillow, slam doors, tear paper or throw softballs. He could have a designated quiet spot in the house, and you could teach him how to count his breaths. You should be looking to keep people and your house safe, not expecting mature and perfect behavior.
4. Be a safe container for his big emotions, and always let him know that you, the parent, can handle it. Your son is feeling out of control, so you need to convey that he is not too much to handle. Welcome his frustration and anger. Let him know that you think this is normal and appropriate and that you are going to help him get through this. Your steadiness will help him feel safe, even as he struggles.
5. Don’t be afraid to get help. A great play therapist will be able to help your son find language and ways to handle his big emotions.
And remember, all of this takes time.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washington post.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Sept. 14.