Ask the Expert — Low Self-Esteem
“I have a question about my 5 1/2 year old son. When he gets in trouble, he reacts by talking in a baby voice and punishing himself. He’ll say things like, “I’m stupid” or “You don’t like me” or “I don’t like myself” in reaction to me getting after him about something he’s not supposed to do. I have to discipline him, but it’s making him have bad self-esteem. What should I do?” (Meg in CA)
Are you sure you are not talking about my children? This is what my wife and I are dealing with right now! In talking to other parents from coast-to-coast, many others share in this same struggle.
On one hand, you are trying to allow the consequences to do the screaming by providing your son with discipline, but, on the other hand, you don’t like how he is processing those consequences. I hear ya!
What I have grown to understand is that it takes a calm mind to search for a solution to this problem. So, don’t freak out over this. What you view as “low self-esteem” at 5 1/2 is not a prognostication of what will be in the future. What you may have on your hands is a translation issue and not so much an emotional one. This is why calm is needed, for, in order to break through the possible translation barriers, you may need to ask some questions.
Calmly ask him why he doesn’t like himself. You might find out that this is how he defines disappointment. This isn’t a bad thing, just a mis-defined word. Simply help him apply it correctly. The same applies when he utters, “I’m stupid” or “You don’t like me.” Get curious, and ask more questions.
When my kids began to do this, my initial response was to pounce on it right away and “fix” the situation. This seemed to only invite the same response in them the next time, like a moth to a flame. I was making a big deal about it and it drew them right back to it. My next strategy was to totally ignore it, which sort of violated my integrity, and it left me feeling like I was running away from the problem. The solution—I believe — is more of a hybrid of the two; staying calm and connected with the issue, while seeking to coach them through it.
I hope that helps.