Q: I have been trying to channel you as my 10-year-old flames out about going to school. Just hold space, I think. This too shall pass, I think. But his moaning and groaning about school, the math curriculum, “Mom, it’s all your fault,” etc., is getting to me. It’s a terrible start to our days. When my husband is downstairs during get-ready time, our kid is not as ugly with his words, but he’s still negative. He has good friends at school and is smart and well-liked. His teacher is not as happy this year and is less able to be affectionate and kind, and I know that’s difficult. But as we’ve talked about, that’s about her and not him. The other thing to note is that his brother is 12 and in the throes of middle school and puberty, so he is no love bug to his little brother. We have lots of talks about this with both of them, but 12 is its own special age. Help!
A: I’m right there with you, actually. We have a routine of misery in the morning in my house, too.
But I am always wary of “Everything is great at school.” Not that it isn’t. It is just worth a deeper look. Are you sure that he isn’t being bullied or bullying others? Are you sure that he isn’t hiding a learning disability or another issue? Is he gifted and bored? Because it is so common for children to hide problems that cause shame, I would send a note to the teacher asking her to pay attention to his interactions and how his learning is going. Don’t rely just on grades and his assertions. Dig deeper. You may think this is all a bit much, but I want every caregiver to read this and feel encouraged to keep taking on more perspectives.
As for all of these crabby mornings, perhaps you need to change your routines. Your younger son wakes up and launches into a litany of complaints. I am guessing that you answer his complaints with rational thought (“It isn’t personal with the teacher, you know that”) or maybe frustration (“That’s enough!”) or begging (“Please let’s just get through this morning”). Each of these responses is normal and, given how tiring this is, expected. The problem is that they fail to address the deeper issues that your son may or may not be aware of. Let’s simplify.
First, control what you can: the environment. Almost every human does well with a solid and (somewhat) calm meal. I know, mornings are busy enough without you setting the table and making bacon and eggs. I am not asking for all that, but attention must be paid to some details.
Set the breakfast table the night before. It feels really good to do this. Seriously. Put out bowls, cereal, honey, cinnamon, spoons, napkins and anything else that is needed and does not need to be refrigerated. Yes, you can make the boys do this, but to begin, you do it.
Next, plan the meal. I am a big fan of making oatmeal for the week and microwaving it every day with fruit and nuts. Do your best to sit everyone down to eat, even if it’s just for five minutes. Chat about the day to come. If there is complaining, listen. If there is grumpiness, listen. Just sit and eat, without smartphones and tablets.
Why am I suggesting a meal to counter negativity? There is nothing more loving than providing a meal and eating it with your children. It is so basic yet so absent in our culture. We sling food at our children while we run around, not feeding ourselves or taking a moment to meet their eyes. A meal says to a child: “I am taking strong care of you. I am here.” It relaxes every human, and it provides a small space for connection.
This space also provides an opportunity to more deeply listen to what your son is saying. What are the feelings underneath the complaints? Or is this the way he gets your attention, and he is stuck communicating with you in a negative loop?
We cannot fix anything until we understand what is actually going on. We cannot make him “positive,” nor can we make him stop whining. So we have to patiently listen for the currents of feelings underneath the rough waters of behaviors.
Also, there are ways to elicit more interesting thoughts from your boys. First, when your son says, “I hate school,” go ahead and agree. “Yeah, school can be a major drag. I remember having years where it was not fun.” See if you can get his eyes. A flicker of recognition. Of “Whoa, my parent gets me.” You are not looking to be his buddy; you are looking to build a connection. The connection will be the conduit that stops the negativity looping in his mind.
If he says that his teacher is cranky, agree that that stinks. Don’t tell him it isn’t personal, because when a teacher is mean (even if that is just a perception) to a 10-year-old, it feels personal. You do not have to fix this unless it is becoming intolerably stressful for your child; you simply have to be a vessel for his hurt feelings and his frustration. As he trusts you to simply listen, he will open up more, bit by bit.
And because you have two irritable boys in the house, pick a good time for the whole family to sit down and map out some fun. Yes, 12 is tough and hormones are surging, but this calls for more connection, not less. It is easier to punish the sass and meanness, but that will not get you far. When I say more connection, I am not suggesting that you suffocate either son with togetherness. Just plan something fun: video games, movies, concerts, eating out, hiking. Don’t expect either son to golf-clap your attempts here. They will probably roll their eyes and sigh. That’s fine. As you make fun a bit more of a routine, the boys will loosen up. Again, you are not looking to make them “nice”; you are being a safety net during tough years. As the parent, you are the safe place.
Finally, although I love making room for feelings and emotions, you should still place strong boundaries around the outbursts and meanness. For instance, the 12-year-old may be moody, but use the morning mealtime to let the boys know that you are going to put a stop to the outright surliness.
This will be a constant dance between nagging, loving and strength. It sounds like: “Nope, you cannot just push your little brother around. I know you are tired and hungry, so let me feed you. Leave him alone. Come here with me now.” It is a posture of strong leadership, not finding ways to punish or shame anyone. You will wake up and practice this loving and strong posture every day. All feelings are welcome, and we also treat each other with kindness. Again, this is a messy and imperfect dance. Soft hearts, strong boundaries, rinse, repeat.
To further understand young men, I strongly recommend Michael Thompson’s books, such as “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.” And if his aggression and anger and depression increase, please seek professional help.