Q: When my 5-year-old boy makes a mistake—whether it’s knocking a glass over or dropping something, all very trivial things—he makes the saddest face and says something to the effect of: “It’s all my fault.” How do I encourage him breaking this habit and teaching him to not, for lack of better phrasing, cry over spilled milk?
I am not sure which is a more challenging issue: A child who over reacts or one for whom mistakes, accidents, hurts don’t seem to register at all. Rest assured, I hear from parents who are concerned for both reasons.
The manner and degree to which a child processes and reacts to his mistakes, accidents and missteps (literally and figuratively) can be seen starting at a very early age. There are many things at play here. While I do not believe you are the cause of his particular sensitivity, I do believe you play the biggest role in his “cure.”
Children are born with certain predispositions to physical and emotional sensitivities. It is part of the “factory equipped model” you got. Children are born with their temperaments, while their personalities develop as a combination of environment and temperament. Our temperament is the HOW of who we are. And it is measured by characteristics like activity level, distractibility, intensity, regularity, persistence, anxiety, sensitivity.
If you look carefully at your child (or yourself!) you can recognize characteristics that have manifest since the very beginning of his life. One of my own children was born with a particular expression on his face that expressed how he saw the world. As an adult father, he still has that facial expression and that approach.
We can also look at the environment in which a child lives for cues that may have promoted his particular way of reacting. Picture the 2-year-old who is running, then falls, and begins to scream. He looks to his parent or caregiver and takes in her reaction. She may have a look of horror on her face and races to pick up the child. Or she may shrug it off and tell the child to pick himself up, or a version of either response. Either way, the child gets a clear message about how to process his accident. He is asking, “Am I okay? What do I do here?” Of course, we are not talking about those bad falls that really, really hurt. Rather I mean the ones that could go either way.
All home environments are seasoned by the inhabitants. But it is the parents who set the tone, the standards, the expectations for the family. (Whether or not the children meet those expectations is a whole different story!) Every adult has stories to share about his/her parents and what it was like in that home. I have clients who describe how hard their own parents were on them about grades or cleanliness or respect or whatever. It is impossible to avoid that tone. There is no question that it shapes who the adult becomes whether positive or negative.
Children who live in an environment flavored by a parent’s own perfectionism may easily develop an internal judge quick to self-criticize. The parent may not even impose her own tendencies on the child. But the child has observed and absorbed the standards, and he applies them to himself.
Those environments, whether home or school, where criticism is frequent and standards may be inappropriately high or just plain unreasonable, can also yield a child who is hyper sensitive or just plain hard on himself.
I have no idea what is actually going on with your son who is hard on himself. I can say that his quick-to-cry behavior is clearly doing something for him. I wonder if by getting mad at himself, he stops you from getting mad at him. He beats you to the punch. I wonder if he reacts (cries) in the same way when no one is around. I wonder if he is quick to cry for the same reasons at school. I wonder if he reacts the same way with his grandparents or baby sitter or with the other parent. There are lots of things to explore which might help you understand and address his behavior.
For now, knowing as little as I do about your family and your situation, I have two suggestions for you. First of all, make lots of mistakes right in front of him. Drop things, break things, knock things over, make a mess and have accidents. Then laugh it off. Say out loud, talking to yourself, “No big deal” or “Oh well, I sure blew that one!” Say nothing more. Encourage others in the house to do the same.
Second, when your son does have an accident, I suggest that you either say absolutely nothing or with a light voice, say “Oopsie.” Maybe offer to help him clean it up. He needs to get no attention for his woe is me reaction, and that includes sympathy or criticism. Stop saying that it is not a big deal and that he doesn’t need to cry. You are only making him feel worse! I repeat, say nothing more than, “How ’bout those Dodgers?”
Aren’t kids puzzles?! And you thought parenting would be a breeze.
BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through betsybrownbraun.com.
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