I have a six year old son, Andrew. I first started noticing a shift in his behavior in Kindergarten. He started acting out at school, but it didn’t become a huge problem until he started first grade this year.
For the first few months of the school year, I was getting daily calls from the teacher telling me that Andrew was a problem. He lashed out at other kids. He was hyper-sensitive to any perceived slight – if someone stepped on his toe, for example, it wasn’t an accident in his eyes. They clearly meant to hurt him. And he had to react and get back at them. He had to defend himself.
It was at the point I was worried he would get kicked out of school.
At home, he would throw temper tantrums and a couple times, he physically lashed out at me.
His friendships were dwindling. His best friend moved away, and he had trouble making and maintaining friendships. When he was invited to something, he was crippled by anxiety and reverted to acting out, or acting like a clown—trying to make others laugh, because he didn’t know how to connect with them any other way.
I see so much of myself as a child in him. I too had rage. I too acted out. I too felt alone and unloved.
I look back and realize these were all cries for help. Instead, my parents blamed me for my poor behavior, told me what a terrible child I was, heaped positive attention on my more docile sister, and offered no other help.
One of my biggest fears is raising a child that has the same emotional problems I have. I know how hurt I was by my parents and I don’t want my son to feel hurt by me in that way.
I know what it’s like to live with the low self-esteem, to have no control over my emotions, to have fleeting volatile relationships. Never able to believe anyone gives a shit about me at all. It’s lonely. I’ve lived a life full of rage.
I looked at Andrew, and realized he was becoming me. Most of what I’ve read says narcissism is established in children before age five. Fuck.
Well, I can’t go back in time and change my earlier mistakes, but I can change what I’m doing now and going forward. Furthermore, if I can change pathological behaviors in myself at 36, he has a much better shot at age 6. Focus on the positive.
My goal became to turn things around before his behaviors become so engrained in his personality that it takes root as a full-fledged personality disorder. Early intervention.
So far, it seems to be working. This week his report card came home and for behavior, he got a B. Huge improvement.
Also, he was invited over to a neighbor’s house to play and I think it went well. Evidence he’s starting to be more socially accepted and learning to get along better with others.
Maybe he won’t be stuck with these issues for the rest of his life after all. Fingers crossed.
Here’s some of what we’ve been trying:
I enrolled Andrew in behavioral therapy. I had mixed feelings about it, because I was afraid the emotional issues would be ignored for behaviors. But we had to get his behaviors under control ASAP or he was going to get kicked out of school.
For our three sessions, we walked away with one real piece of advice: offer labeled praise when he does something good, ignore bad behavior.
The labeled praise should be given liberally while he’s doing the positive thing. For example, “I like how quietly you’re playing.”
Seems too simple, but it started to immediately turn his behavior around at home and at school. That was the crucial first step.
Being mindful when I’m with him
I would often be checked out when I was with my son. Time spent with him was necessary to get the job done (bathing him, getting his homework done, feeding him, etc.). I could be dissociating or thinking about my own issues or checking my phone. Most of the time, my mind was elsewhere and I was running an internal countdown clock to his bedtime when I could finally get some uninterrupted “me time.”
I wasn’t there with him, didn’t enjoy spending time with him, and he knew it. One day, he asked me if I love him. Like, really asked. My heart sank.
Now I make a concerted effort to be in the moment when I’m with him. Sometimes I will leave my phone in another room. We have phone-free family time now too.
The more I practice being one-mindful with him the more naturally it comes.
I didn’t know how to talk to my own son. I didn’t know how to relate to him. When I first started engaging him more in conversation, it was incredibly awkward. He would say something or ask me a question and I had no idea how to respond.
I couldn’t be myself with him and he couldn’t be himself with me. It’s like I was babysitting someone else’s child. At six, he already wasn’t sharing major details of his life with me. He already felt he had to handle everything on his own.
I had to build trust with him, by talking to him a lot and really listening to what he has to say – and then showing him that I was willing and eager to help with his problems – and prove that I’m his advocate.
Empathizing with him and teaching him empathy for others
I have to teach him empathy, while I’m still learning it myself. Essentially, we are learning together.
I make a regular effort to put myself in his shoes. I ask myself often, how might this make Andrew feel? I try to remember how it felt to be a child.
I talk it through with him. I explain how I think he feels and ask if I have it right. I tell him I understand why he would feel that way. I relate to him by talking about how I may feel in a similar situation or how I felt in similar situations in the past.
I encourage him to think about how others may feel in a given situation, or how he would feel if it was him.
When he feels slighted by someone and wants to defend himself, we talk through what actually happened (the facts). We talk about how the other person may feel. Discuss other possibilities for their actions, rather than assuming they are out to intentionally hurt him.
I praise and encourage him when he shows empathy for others, for animals, for his baby brother.
Last week, he took it upon himself to get the cat water and I praised him for thinking about her needs and being kind to her.
Being kind to him. Being understanding when he makes a mistake. Being forgiving. Encouraging him to be kind to himself and not to engage in negative self-talk. Encouraging and praising him for being kind to others.
Focusing on the positive
I remember to praise him for the good things he does. When we talk about the negative, I try to frame it in a way that emphasizes healthier reactions. I make sure to let him know bad behavior doesn’t mean he’s a bad person, it means we have some stuff to work on.
I’m teaching my six year old DBT
My husband and I are both working on learning DBT ourselves, and we don’t hide it from our son — we invite him to participate.
So far, we’ve showed him opposite action, distraction, mindfulness, radical acceptance, fact checking and a few other skills.
The other day he was upset about not getting home until late, because he wouldn’t get to watch Pokémon XYZ, which had just come out on Netflix. It was a great opportunity to learn radical acceptance.
I validated his feelings, acknowledging how upset he was and explained that I could totally understand why he felt the way he did.
Then we talked about how this particular situation was something we couldn’t change, and that continuing to be upset about it would only make him more upset. Instead, I helped him distract himself from the negative emotions by playing a game with him in the car.
Encourage him to explore his feelings
Anger is a secondary emotion that other harder to face emotions hide behind. When he’s angry, I encourage him to take some time to think about exactly why he felt so angry. I try to talk through it with him to help him explore the root feelings.
Showing fairness between him and his brother
Growing up I was the scapegoat, my sister was the golden child. When my sister was born, I was essentially ignored and told I was the bad one, she was the good one. We were pitted against each other and because of that, I was almost in my 30s before we had a relationship. I don’t want that for my kids.
I honestly see how this could have happened.
Last year, I gave birth to my second son, Ethan. With all my attention going to the baby, I would get easily frustrated with Andrew, who was feeling ignored and seeking attention by acting out.
He also is loud and wakes up the baby. He is much bigger and doesn’t realize the baby is more fragile, so he can be too rough sometimes, etc. etc. etc. Normal kid stuff, but it was already beginning to turn into me focusing on all the annoying things Andrew did, while heaping all my kindness and attention on innocent little Ethan. That had to stop.
I now praise him for any kindness he shows to the baby and tell him often what a great big brother he is. I ask for his help with small tasks and praise him for being so thoughtful and showing empathy toward Ethan.
I make every effort to point out when the baby shows affection to his big brother by smiling, wanting to play with him, etc. I tell him how much his baby brother loves him and looks up to him.
I try not to compare them. We do sometimes talk about differences in their personalities, but non-judgmentally. I try to point out each of them have their own unique personalities, and highlight the good in each of them.
I also make time for just Andrew. Last weekend we went to the movies, shopping, out to dinner, just the two of us and I was able to stay in the moment for most of it.
Highlighting my own flaws and discussing them with him
I let Andrew know now that we (me and his father) are not perfect either and that we need help managing our emotions too.
I’m still learning and sometimes I mess up. Sometimes I blow up, mentally check out or am just plain negative. I’m a work in progress.
But I’m trying to do better and take responsibility when I mess up. I apologize when appropriate or necessary. I do my best to explain that it’s not his fault. I talk about what I could have done better — then really try to do better next time. Ask him how he feels. Try to show him I’m trying and that things are consistently improving.
I also try to use these situations as teachable moments. I relate to Andrew and the trouble he’s had with his behavior, explaining that I have the same problems and I’m also working on it, just like he is.
I ask for his empathy, by reminding him how he feels when he loses control of his emotions and ask if he can understand how I may have been feeling in a similar way.
We talk about better ways to handle those situations. I make every effort to handle it that way going forward. I encourage him to point out to me if he feels I’m acting a certain way and I take a pause if he tells me I am.
I do my best to talk through my own efforts at emotional regulation so that he can see and learn what’s healthy and what works (and what doesn’t). It’s important to me he knows how hard I’m working on it. My emotions are mine to control and not his fault. Sometimes I will tell him, mommy is feeling angry – you didn’t do anything wrong and I’m not mad at you– but I need a few minutes alone to cool off. He gets it and will sometimes tell me the same. If he does, I back off and come back in a half hour to see if he might like to talk about it now.
I also ask him every so often: what can I do to be a better mom to you?
Bonding with my son
Last week, Andrew got in trouble at school. This is much less frequent these days, but still happens sometimes. I wanted to talk to him about it.
He had noticed the field in back of our house was filled with small flowers and had been wanting to show it to me for a few days — he kept bringing it up, but it was never a good time. He asked if we could talk about school in the field. It was one of the first nice spring days. We sat in the shade of a tree, just me and him in the field of flowers.
He told me what happened. He was honest, I was kind. It was a good talk.
After we’d talked it through, he told me: I want to focus on positive thoughts now. That made me smile.
We played hide and seek and I stayed in the moment with him.