In fits of frustration, an intense and upset child might exclaim, “I hate my life! I’m so stupid!” These kids sometimes hit themselves, destroy their work, and seem out of control. It can be really hard to listen to your child say terribly mean things to himself. It can be scary to think your child might believe what he is saying. This is when a lot of parents reach out and consult with a mental health clinician.
My job, then, is to try to figure out how this behavior fits in (or doesn’t fit in) with the rest of the child. I look to see if this is ordinarily a pretty expressive, intense kid who can also be exuberant and excited about her accomplishments. I also try to figure out what we can put in place to help the child through future frustrations. Many times, I discover this is a child who does not like to make mistakes or “mess up.” This is a child who might resist new experiences, preferring to do what he or she already feels they can do well. These kids can benefit from learning how to change “unhelpful thoughts” to “helpful thoughts.”
Teach the Concept
I often start by asking kids if they’ve ever had a really good coach or teacher. Fortunately, most kids say they have. I inquire a little about their experience with the good coach or teacher and will ask, “so, if you were up against a really tough team, what kinds of things would your coach say to you?” Usually, we’re able to identify that good coaches will provide encouragement, tell you what you’re doing well, and give you some specific suggestions for what you could do better. We’ll talk about not-so-good coaches and what they might say when you’re up against a tough team. These coaches might focus on the negatives, be insulting or humiliating, and rarely give specific and realistic guidance for how to improve.
Make the Connection
At this point, many kids will realize that when they talk to themselves (or out loud) when frustrated, they are being a bad coach. They can begin to identify unhelpful thoughts and statements, like “I’m so stupid!” or “I’ll never be able to figure this out!” We remember that good coaches provide encouragement, point out what you’re doing well, and give specific suggestions for what you can do.
Be a Good Coach
We try to figure out what a good coach might say, like, “learning something new isn’t always easy but you eventually figure it out. You’re working on it. Take a deep breath, get some water, and look at the example. You can ask your mom for help or maybe find a video on YouTube to explain it. If not, you can circle it and ask the teacher tomorrow.”
Working with a clinician, you and your child can learn more specific and individualized strategies expanding on this concept. Your child can learn frustration tolerance, flexible thinking, and problem solving. You can learn how to support your child as he or she develops these new skills.