Q: Our oldest son, age eight, has recently started saying that he has no friends, no one likes him, he’s no good at anything, and so on. None of this is true, mind you. He’s a good kid who does well in school. We are at a loss as to where this is coming from. His younger brothers are bothered by hearing it as well, and we worry about the effect on them. This has been going on for a couple of months now. We’ve tried talking to him, and we’ve tried ignoring him. Nothing works. What should we do?
A: This problem is more common than most people might think. It’s an example of the fact that human beings have a proclivity for manufacturing dramas concerning their lives. In these personal soap operas, the person in question is a victim of social forces, circumstances, or personal limitations that are beyond his or her control (supposedly) and are preventing him from living a fully satisfying life. Everyone reading this column knows someone who fits this description, a chronic complainer who refuses to grow up and claim full responsibility for his or her life. They seem to believe they are entitled to happiness when — as all truly responsible people know — happiness is something one claims.
Children are especially prone to this sort of self-destructive thinking. They are drama factories. In the child soap opera — your son’s, for example — the most common themes are “nobody likes me” and “I can’t do anything right.” In most cases, there is no basis in fact for these complaints. At most, they are gross exaggerations of normal problems of living that everyone experiences to one degree or another.
The more attention people pay to the child’s complaints, the worse they will become, and dangerously so. Researchers have established that if a person repeats a certain negative self-characterization often enough, he will eventually begin to believe it’s true. So whereas your son’s statements are not factual, his mental health is in danger.
You must stop talking to him about these statements. Paradoxically, attempts to prove to him that none of his self-deprecations are true will only make matters worse. On the other hand, and as you’ve discovered, ignoring them is impossible. When the child in question is not yet 11 years old, the recommendation I usually make is for the parents tell the child that they talked to a doctor who has a lot of experience with children who keep making negative statements about themselves that aren’t true. The doctor said it means the child isn’t getting enough sleep and is watching too much television. Until the statements have completely stopped for a continuous period of two weeks, the doctor says your son has to go to bed, lights out, at 6:30, even if that means cancelling an activity, and can’t watch television or play a video game.
The word “continuous” is important. If, for example, your son does not make any statement of self-complaint for twelve days, but says he hates himself on day thirteen, the two weeks starts over. The idea is to get him to stop making these self-dramatic statements and therefore stop thinking self-destructive thoughts.
If this approach does not result in significant improvement within a month, that may indicate a more serious problem. In that case, I would recommend that you make an appointment with a professional who specializes in child mental health issues.