Reader asks: My 8 year old son constantly whines and complains about people insulting him. Whether it’s his younger brother or kids at school, it’s always something. And the things that he gets upset about are so minor. For example, he was so upset the other day when his brother was copying him, and was almost crying, repeating over and over, “stop being so mean!” I know you say I should act like his feelings make sense, but honestly they don’t make sense sometimes and I don’t want him to go through life still thinking of himself as a victim because his mom was too coddling. What do I do?
Dear parent who is doing an awesome job considering the important aspects of your child’s emotional well-being by striving to be both a soft place to land AND a teacher of resilience. May I simply call you “Awesome Parent” for short?
A.P., allow me to give you a few things to consider as you try to both support your child and instill resilience in him:
- Validation does not mean you agree with his feeling or that you’d react the same way. Validation is simply honoring his perspective as it is for him. You could say, “I see how you’d be upset by that,” or “Oh, what a bummer for you,” or “It’s understandable that you’d be upset by that.” Or, if you want to be a real support-ninja, you could offer empathy, which means putting yourself in your kid’s shoes and feeling his feeling with him. You could say something empathic like, “I’d imagine that your brother copying you feels pretty frustrating.” Honoring his feeling doesn’t have to be a proclamation of agreement with his feeling. It’d be weird if you felt the same way as your kid about every hypothetical life scenario. But thay doesn’t mean you can’t honor his unique internal experience.
- Validation is a PART of resilience. The most resilient people are the ones who can withstand life’s bumps and bruises through calling on their abilities to validate their own behaviors and the behaviors of others. If you want Bobby to be able to someday say, “I can see why Joey didn’t want to play ponies, so I’m not taking his choice as a personal insult” AND “I can easily move-on because I recognize that my dissapointment is understandable, and have therefore removed any self-loathing, fear, and confusion,” then MODEL this skill for him.
- Validation is offered WITH teaching and growth, not instead of teaching and growth. Just because you say, “Awe, Bobby, I see why you’d be disappointed with that,” does not mean you don’t also say, “Do you think Joey might have been being playful instead of mean? How do you know the difference between playful and mean?” (Tone of voice and body language matters. Offer alternative perspectives warmly and curiously, not annoyed and sarcastically.) You can introduce more balanced perspectives without telling him his interpretation and feelings are wrong. In fact, he’ll only listen to your conjectures if he is truly understood by you at the outset of his emotional revelation. (Therapy 101.)
- Honoring his feeling is often accompanied by labeling his feeling, and to label his feeling is to teach a phenomenal life skill of emotional awareness. Boys are not often taught that it’s normal and allowable to experience fear, inadequacy, insecurity, sadness, etc. in our society, and as a result they are at a disadvantage in terms of their psychological and relationship well-being. And it sounds like your son might need some help deciphering “others are mean” from what is really going on internally . If his brother is copying him, you could validate and label his experience by saying something like, “I totally get how your brother not listening to you makes you feel powerless and frustrated.” (Not recognizing “powerless” and “inadequate” are two skill deficits that often breed passive-aggressiveness and land adult males in couples therapy.) Give your kid that gift of getting in the habit of acknowledging what he’s feeling without shame.
- You might have an overly negative reaction/fear associated with being “sensitive” or being a “victim.” If your kid is only 8 and you are concerned about this stuff, it makes me wonder… Are you also an over-thinking psychologist who works with adults with personality disorders and is a little on the paranoid side when it comes to parenting? (Insert nervous smiley face: 🙂 ) Or were you raised by a “I’m always the victim” parent that rubbed you the wrong way your whole life, and now your mission is to make sure your kids are nothing like your miserable, negative, forever-the-victim-of-everything-mother? Just in case you might need to challenge yourself on your own fears about your kid’s normal feelings…
- Sometimes sensitivities like your son’s represent an insecurity with attachment (he expects people to hurt/reject him because he’s been hurt/rejected). In this case, failing to validate will make his sensitivity infinitely worse by making him feel more rejected and misunderstood. Even if his sensitivity is due to developmental issues/difficulty interpreting social cues and/or inborn temperament, he will likely develop attachment insecurity if you skip the validation step and just go with a “suck it up” message.
- Rough, yet safe, play is an underrated way to teach resilience. Since I just read this awesome book about raising emotionally healthy boys, borderline aggressive physical play comes to the top of my head as a way to practice resilience. This type of interaction with a safe and trusted adult offers a physical manifestation of the ebbs and flows of social satisfaction/disappointment. Wrestling and rolling around with your child teaches your child that sometimes he “wins” and sometimes he doesn’t, but brushing off the annoyance and getting back in the game is way more fun than sulking on the sidelines. If he legitimately is hurt or doesn’t want to be tickled though, honor that- remember it doesn’t work if you aren’t “safe and trusted” in his mind.
- If you skip the validation step, he will stop talking to you at best and internalize the message that revealing his feelings is unsafe with ANYONE at worst.
- Encourage his father to do all of this stuff with your son. A father who is PRESENT, understanding, AND a source of teaching is the number one predictor of emotional well-being in a boy.
That’s all for now, says the therapist who never got anything accomplished in therapy without first attempting to deeply honor the unique perspective of the client…
For more on kids, couples, and psychology, find OTYC on Facebook!