Disturbed My Boy is Losing Self-Confidence

In this episode: Janet responds to an email from a parent whose son has been coming home from daycare recently and telling her he can’t do certain tasks and activities. “It disturbs me,” she writes. “I just want him to do his best and be proud of himself.” She says his attitude seems to be getting worse, and she’s seeking advice how to respond to him.

Transcript of “Disturbed My Boy is Losing Self-Confidence”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to an email from a parent who says that lately her three-and-a-half year old has been coming home from daycare and telling her that he’s not good at certain tasks and activities. She tries being supportive, but he insists that he just can’t do it. She’s that it’s getting worse, and she’s wondering how to best respond.

Here’s the email:

“Hi. My three-and-a-half year old son is in daycare full time and recently started telling me that he’s not good at counting or writing, tracing, letters or using a zipper, et cetera. He’s one of the younger kids in his room at daycare, so a lot of the kids are a little more advanced than he is at certain things. He’s in a four year old room. I’ve been responding by telling him that he just needs to practice and try his best, but he replies by reiterating that he can’t do it. How do I respond? I’m not worried about his skills as they’re age appropriate, but it disturbs me that he thinks he’s bad at things. I just want him to do his best and be proud of himself. I feel like I’m not responding appropriately because it seems to be getting worse and spreading to other activities. For example, last week he told me he was bad at swimming, when we were on our way to swimming lessons which he loves. Please advice. Thank you for any help.”

Okay. I think one of the most challenging things about our children making these kinds of statements or seeming to feel uncomfortable about things is to get out of our own head and our own fears around things and the way we perceive them as adults, and really get into our child’s head. Try to see from his perspective. Children naturally have what psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck refers to as a “growth mindset”, and that is the healthiest mindset to have, because that mindset isn’t deciding and judging ourselves as failures and not good and unable to do things.

But as parents it’s very easy for us because we naturally are concerned about our children, and we hate seeing them the slightest bit uncomfortable or disappointed or going through difficulties. It’s natural for us to jump to the worst scenario, which is “Yikes, he’s decided now at age three-and-a-half that he’s bad at things. He’s already decided this, and he’s kind of beating himself up for it and having a defeatist attitude about it.”

I don’t believe any of that is true. I think that’s the important perspective for us to have as parents, in all situations where our children are reporting back to us or expressing feelings about things, expressing ideas about themselves. So, calming ourselves and approaching these situations with curiosity with our own growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset of “Uh-oh, there’s a big problem here”.

Instead, we should try to be in the process with our child. It may be that another child said this to him, that he’s not good at whatever it is. We’re not sure how he got this impression. Or maybe this mother does know that, but she’s not sharing it in her note. But that’s the first thing that I would be curious about as the parent if my child said something like this … after first calming myself and realizing “You know what? Their perspective is very different, and usually much healthier than ours.” Coming from a place of fear as a parent is never going to be very productive.

It’s always safe to do one of Magda Gerber’s magic words that she reminded us of: “Acknowledge”. Just acknowledge, which doesn’t mean repeating his words back to him, but just allowing it to be okay that he feels what he feels. So, let’s say it’s the first time and he says “I’m not good at counting.” I would respond “Wow, you feel like you’re not good at counting. What does that mean? Do you get stuck? Do you feel like other people can count many more numbers than you can? Is it that there are words that you don’t know yet that other children know?” I would explore with that kind of curiosity, because I want to understand where my child is coming from and not jump to conclusions or make assumptions.

So, with some of that information from him if he’s willing to share it, then I would say something like “How does that feel to have other children doing things that you’re not doing yet?” And “yet” is this wonderful way of thinking that also Carol Dweck recommends, because that is growth mindset: To not say I’m done, this is decided, I’m not good at this, I’m bad at these things, and I’m pretty good at these things. But really to understand that we’re always learning and growing and discovering things we can do and improving. That’s what life is.

You know, we’re always changing. Life always changes, and we always change along with it. Especially when we’re three years old, we’re still in a time of rapid, rapid change. So, I would really walk through this with him with courage, if possible, and openness, that openness that he needs to be able to share, and for people to find out what he’s really thinking, what does he really mean by that. It’s often something totally different that what we’re worried he means.

So what this mom says is: “I’ve been responding by telling him that he just needs to practice and try his best.” She is saying there’s room to improve here, but I think that might still be implying to him that it’s not okay to be where he is. Obviously, this mother does not mean to do that. She means to do the opposite. But I think that’s how it could very easily be coming across to him when she says “You just need to practice and try your best. You know, you’ll get better at it.” She’s kind of lovingly trying to move him ahead instead of it just being fine where he is right now. Yes, people are doing things, and you’re not doing those yet. If we think about it, it really isn’t a problem.

This mother even says she’s not concerned about him developmentally but, as I think we would all be inclined to be, she’s afraid about his feelings. She’s afraid that he’s feeling discouraged, not that he is behind in a problematic way, but that he really is not having faith in himself, the he’s feeling like he can’t do things. He’s picking up on that. So, that’s the thing. If we are uncomfortable about something, then our child is going to pick up on that. We’re the ones that set the tone, so we’re the ones that have to set the tone of our comfort with where he’s at and what he thinks about where these other children are compared to him.

The problem with being uncomfortable ourselves in these situations, or afraid for our child, afraid for their uncomfortable feelings, is that then it does become this curious thing for our child to explore. You know, these are expert learners at this age. They are always wanting to learn more. One of the things they really want to understand are their leaders. What do they think about things? How do they feel?

So, if he feels that you’re concerned, which you know this mother is, she said she’s disturbed that he thinks he’s bad at things, now he’s wondering “Why is that a bit of a trigger for my mother? Why does it bug her when I say I’m not good at things? Or that I’m bad at something? Why does that have power with her?” I think that’s why it is spreading to other activities where he’s saying he’s bad at swimming and … You know, he wants to see “Does that trouble my mother, this powerful leader person that I’m looking to be comfortable with me and all my thoughts and feelings and all the things that I go through? Wow, that’s a vulnerable place for her.”

Children are so fascinating. They’re so intuitive and so tuned in. If their parents are bugged by something, they’re going to need to keep exploring that. So, again, I believe the answer, or the way to shift this, is to back way up as a parent, zoom way out, and go back to: He’s saying something that I could take a certain way and get upset about, but because I want to know more I’m going to approach with curiosity and not curiosity that has panic behind it … that’s not going to work either … but real trust in my child. It’s the hardest thing.

The interesting thing is that you’ll see probably your attitudes and your concerns about this were, you know, that train that you got on. He was on a different train. You know, he was just assessing. He wasn’t judging himself. He was just assessing, and maybe repeating something somebody said to him. She said “he needs to practice and try his best.” He replies by reiterating it that he can’t do it. What he’s saying there is “I just want you to get my message. This is how I feel, and I’m sharing this with you. I’m not asking you to fix me or see this as a problem that we need to change. I’m just sharing with you that I notice this. Maybe somebody said it to me, but is this okay, Mom, that I feel this way?” And it has to be okay with us for him to be able to move through it easily. All feelings allowed, even these feelings, even these, even these “I can’t do it”.

I feel like “I can’t” about a lot of things. I express it to myself, you know, I beat myself up for it. And then most of the time I find out that I can. But I have to go through that frustration, or I have to go through that feeling of being in between and being in the process, maybe not being where I want to be or other people are. We don’t even know that he wants to be able to do the things. All we know is that he’s saying he’s not good at these things, because he sees other people doing them and he’s not doing them yet.

So, I would embrace the “yet”. I would embrace the process and the growth mindset and the curiosity. One of the most important qualities in a parent: Curiosity. I really hope that helps.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.


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