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My 6-year-old is extremely hard on himself. What do I do?

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post; iStock)

Q: My 6-year-old has been hard on himself for years, but I feel as if it’s getting worse. He says he hates himself if he makes a mistake with writing a letter of the alphabet and recently even spanked himself for spilling water. We don’t spank in our family, so I was extremely surprised and disturbed. Now, my 3-year-old is picking up on some of these behaviors and saying he hates himself and hits himself. This isn’t normal, right? Where do I turn for help?

A: It’s terribly hard to watch our children be so hard on themselves. Finding support for your son and yourself is a great next step.

You mention that your son has been hard on himself for years, but I have to stress how little I know about your family, and that makes a big difference here. There could be myriad things happening, and I want to address as many as I can to cover all of the bases.

You ask an important question — “This isn’t normal, right?” — and I want to get right to it. I understand what you’re asking, and I suggest you see all behavior, especially from younger children, as “normal.” What do I mean? All the behavior we see (the language and spanking), although deeply upsetting and reason for support, is fulfilling some sort of need in your son. In simple terms, I don’t see behaviors as normal or abnormal; I see them as a sign that something isn’t working for your child, and he is getting his needs met with these behaviors.

What needs are getting met with self-hating language and hitting? That’s the million-dollar question. Is your son anxious? Is there a learning issue? Is there a physical health issue? Is he being hurt or abused by an adult in his life? I don’t know, but when a young child has been hard on himself for years (and he’s only 6), we need to take it seriously and not assume he will grow out of it. This level of frustration and self-abuse is also so hard, because he is too young to fully help himself; his brain isn’t mature enough to talk to itself, leaving him feeling angry, ashamed and anxious.

To begin, make a list of who, what, where, when and how: who is there when he self-attacks, what’s happening, where is he, when does it occur and how often. Try to get as much detail as you can, and go as far back as possible. The more specific you can be, the better and faster the support will begin.

Next, call your pediatrician and ask to have a full examination and lab done. Although it may have nothing to do with his behavior, we need to make sure he isn’t having allergic reactions or imbalances affecting his mood.

Then call a meeting with his teachers and the counselor. Your “writing a letter” comment made my ears perk up, and I’d like for the school to begin to see how your son’s learning is moving along. You can also request that he be tested for all kinds of issues, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, reading problems and more. Be aware that you can do this privately or through the public schools.

Finally, educate yourself more. Read Ross Greene’s “The Explosive Child,” go to livesinthebalance.org and watch the videos there, and consider working with someone who specializes in this approach, so you can fully support your son. I also like “Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD,” by Eli Lebowitz; it has data on anxiety in children and a simple, clear approach for how to help parents of anxious children. (Great worksheets are in the back.)

Hitting oneself, like hitting others, is an act of pent-up frustration — an explosion of big emotions with nowhere to go. Using empathy and compassion, first and foremost, will help your son feel calmer, as well as seen and safe, and from there, he can learn to handle his big emotions with more equanimity. Again, he is trying to relieve the pressure of emotions, such as vulnerability, fear and helplessness, with aggression, which is not abnormal, but your role as a loving parent is to help ease his frustrations, help him feel his big feelings and teach him to cope with the stress of simply being a human.

I know I am throwing a lot of work your way, but please don’t wait. Your whole family deserves support, and if there’s something more serious that is happening or that has happened, such as physical or sexual abuse, we want to know now, so the healing can begin. Good luck.

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