Worried mom of 10-year-old son with inferiority complex
June 15, 2014 6:43 PM   Subscribe

10-year-old that struggles with many things who, for a few years now, has, when feeling sad/depressed, talked about how no one likes him, he's not good at anything, has no special qualities, isn't smart... etc. Looking for ways to help him.

Single parent but other parent is involved (though we struggle to agree on what to do about this issue). We have a 10-year-old boy who struggles socially but also does okay socially (e.g., does have friends, but no special or close friends). He struggles with school but also does fine (works to get Bs and Cs). He struggles with sports (participates but is always the least skilled on the team). In other words, nothing comes easy for this one. He compares himself to others and comes out feeling as if he doesn't measure up. Though I will try and point out things he does excel at (he is hilarious, a loyal and caring friend who will fight to the death for the ones he loves and who can memorize facts about animals like no one's business), I can't overcome his refrain of absolutes (no one likes him, he's not good at anything, he isn't special at anything). When I try to nudge him to see things with a slightly less black cloud viewpoint he'll eventually get tired of me being his cheerleader and/or pointing out who he just played with last week an say "Never mind - I'm fine," which isn't reassuring at all. I'm worried. His father who, as I mentioned, is involved, thinks I'm overreacting and would not agree to therapy.
So, I need suggestions or resources to flip this switch. Obviously, the approach I'm using isn't working. Did you have a kid like this? Was there something you did that made a difference? Were you this kid? What did your parents/could your parents have done to help you?
posted by youdontmakefriendswithsalad to Human Relations (50 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I have a few ideas here:

1. Lots of affirmations. Very honest and not sugarcoated ones. "You're doing just fine." "I love you, and I will always love you." "You are special to me and all the other people who care about you. Which is a lot of people." "It might be hard to believe, but you are very [insert down to earth compliment here]." I would not rely on anything that reduces to "You have to say that, because you're my mom," or anything to quirky/irrelevant like being good at memorizing animal facts. Remember that he's a little person, and he's probably self aware enough about where he stands in things like number of friends, grades, athletic talent, etc. He's also old enough to know what counts in terms of talents, and what's just silly stuff your mom would say. I think "hilarious" is a perfectly good one.

2. Help him find his "thing". Every kid needs a thing to be good at, to call their own. There's a lot more to life than just sports and grades and being a caring friend. You say he's funny, why not show him a bunch of comedy? Standup specials, SNL, Kids In The Hall, old comedy albums and classic movie comedies, maybe All That or another more contemporary "kids do comedy" type of show. But it could really be anything. Art. Music. Performing. Sign him up for guitar lessons or a drawing class. A lot of boys that age get really into magic and simple card tricks and the like. Or maybe some kind of volunteer thing? Scouting? But really he just needs something that motivates him and that he feels ownership over.

3. You mention "nobody likes me" a few times. Fifth grade is about the age where social standing in school and who's friends with who becomes a thing. It feels like the end of the world if you aren't popular at that age. Could you talk more with him about what's up at school and in his social circle? He clearly has strong reasons to think nobody likes him, so just steamrolling over that with "of course people like you" is probably not going to do much.
posted by Sara C. at 6:56 PM on June 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sounds like neither school nor sports are a ton of fun for him. What other outlets for fun does he have in his life? Has he tried any other extracurricular activites? Maybe he would excel or at least have more fun doing something: chess, science club, improv, dance, music, karate, etc. Encourage him to try new things for the fun of it, and not to worry about whether or not he's the BEST at everything.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:57 PM on June 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

i was this kid. what my parents could have done was

a) noticed how much i was getting bullied and abused at school AND TRIED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT (may not apply)
b) stopped forcing me into activities i genuinely did not like and did not want to participate in but were for "my own good" (may not apply)
c) listened to me with out trying to put a positive spin on things--sometimes things just suck and it needs to be said
d) gotten me into therapy and on meds (i really needed them, your kid may not, but maybe; why does dad need to agree to therapy)

be a mom, not a cheerleader sometimes. a hug and an "i'm sorry" were sometimes all i wanted (and a cookie)
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:07 PM on June 15, 2014 [24 favorites]

Best answer: I wish someone had told me at that age that the kids who sail through on natural talent flounder when they hit adulthood, while the kids who struggled their way to Bs and Cs are all neurosurgeons now.

I don't know if 10-year-old boys can hear that or not, but now I get it, that the MUCH MORE IMPORTANT PART of being that age was developing the habits of working hard to master skills ... or not working at all because you don't have to. He's developing a stick-to-it-ive-ness and willingness to try that will serve him well, and his peers are going to be jealous of in a few years.

Being the best player on the soccer field is easy. Being the worst player on the soccer field is hard, and a kid who keeps showing up when he's not very good has a hell of a lot of gumption.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:22 PM on June 15, 2014 [98 favorites]

I'm thinking improv classes taught by a great, caring teacher might be a rewarding use of his time.
posted by blueberry at 7:26 PM on June 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is a very specific suggestion that worked for a friend of mine with a son in a similar situation: swordfighting classes. It doesn't need to be that, obviously, but what seemed to work was a) the activity was so unusual and fun it didn't seem to be too terrible to be not great at it and b) it was a wicked cool thing to his school friends, but not something that their parents would let them take so he wasn't going to end up being compared to them. (And they didn't have a yardstick to judge how good he was.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:26 PM on June 15, 2014 [17 favorites]

Not sure how to get this across to a 10 year old, but I started believing in myself only after I realized that no matter who you are, no matter what your talent, there is always someone who can do it "better". Instead of looking at the one or two (or 10 or whatever) that were better than me at an event when I was in school, I tried to put it in context of all the kids around the country who were worse. Think of it this way, half the people in the country finished in the bottom half of their class. That is true of high school, of college and of professional schools too. Even if you go to an elite medical school, say John's Hopkins, half of those graduates were in the bottom half of their class. Even hall of fame athletes have their records broken all the time. I think your son, with his parent's help, should learn that the real measure of success is not versus others, but did he do the best he is capable of doing? If he maximized his potential, he is likely doing better than 99% of the kids in his school who are not.

If it were my child, I would try to reframe the issue.
posted by 724A at 7:27 PM on June 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

ps. not suggesting you need to let your kid wave a blade around, but just that the unusualness of the activity was what seemed to work here.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:27 PM on June 15, 2014

I think that your assurances might come off to him as minimizing his feelings and perceptions. Have you asked him if there's any way you can help? Can you brainstorm with him over ways you could help?

He sounds to me like he need more support to actually strengthen his skills in some way. For example, he might need special help/coaching for his sports skills, and/or a tutor for his schoolwork, and/or some kind of structured social engagement (involvement in Boy Scouts, a Youth Group that holds dances, a band, etc) so that he has more support in learning social skills. If he feels inadequately skilled, there are concrete ways to support him and improve those skills, he doesn't have to just struggle to scrape by alone.

At this point, I think he's probably exhausted trying to keep up and if there's some way you can help him and/or find professionals who can help him improve in the ways he is already working hard (in terms of his grades, his social skills, his involvement in sports, etc), I think it would give him a lot more assurance and confidence.
posted by rue72 at 7:28 PM on June 15, 2014 [10 favorites]

I know you're his mom and that as his mom, you want to Fix All the Things, but if you read back over your post, maybe you'll see what I see: that you are (gently, and with a good heart) arguing with your son about how he feels. I would eventually give up and tell you I'm fine, too.

Instead, I would suggest mirroring his words and affirming his feelings. Try things like "It sounds like you're saying you're lonely; that must be hard" or "it must make you feel badly to think that way about yourself."

Yes it is hard to leave it there, to not push him to see the sunny side of things, but if he doesn't want to talk to you the way you've been talking to him, I'd try this. And as a minor point, I'd add that helping him to name his feelings this way is a very healthy life skill, one that is especially important to help boys develop.

PS: Not acknowledging what he's telling you when it is a true thing -- that he has no best friend, and that's sad and lonely -- isn't going to help him deal with the fact he doesn't have a best friend.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:34 PM on June 15, 2014 [57 favorites]

Maybe this is coming out of left field, but hey, this is AskMe, so we all bring our own experiences into our answers. I was a perfectionist as a kid, and I was good at virtually everything. The best at virtually everything. However, rather than making me feel good about myself and at ease, this made me super anxious for most of my childhood (and beyond!), because I felt like my lovability was conditional on being the best at everything. Before even a minor elementary school quiz, for instance, I would get incredible anxiety, feeling like it was an official referendum on my worth as a person. (I hasten to add that this was not furthered by anything my parents said or did; it was just something that I picked up somehow.) It took a long time for me to uncouple my achievements from my innate worth as a person - as in, even if I get an A- on this test, or even if I don't get picked for varsity hockey, or whatever, that does not make me any less lovable or valuable as a human being, because my lovability and my worth as a human are unconditional, and based simply on me being me rather than me excelling compared to others at a given thing. The value of humans isn't comparative and competitive, but individual, particular, and non-quantifiable. If you can use this situation to help your son realize this, it will be an incredible gift for him.
posted by ClaireBear at 7:36 PM on June 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

I think that your assurances might come off to him as minimizing his feelings and perceptions.

This is a recurring theme and I think it's correct. You know, instead of telling him how he's "doing fine" when he knows that he isn't, validate his feelings and work with him to try to figure out how to make things better. Maybe he needs more help in school. Maybe some athletic lessons to improve his hand-eye coordination and physical skills would help. (I like the suggestion of a "different" activity that his classmates aren't doing)
posted by deanc at 7:37 PM on June 15, 2014 [11 favorites]

Emphasize patience and perseverance over natural talent. Applaud him for sticking with things, not for getting a "win" quickly. Situations that tend to suck when you are young can change and improve with time, if one is diligent and doesn't give up. Don't be afraid to confirm that life does suck sometimes. The kneejerk reaction is to say "it's not that bad" or "you're not terrible, you looked really good in the outfield (where the other kids stuck you because you suck)". But that invalidates the other person's experience, which is admittedly not positive.

I wish my parents had encouraged me to try harder with things that I didn't think I was good at because I don't have the natural talent like others do. I was too focused on the grade or how I compared to others. But maybe if I had persevered, I could have been as good (or better) than the naturals, with practice.

I like this quote: "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times." - Bruce Lee
posted by griselda at 7:38 PM on June 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

I wasn't exactly in your child's place - I excelled in school and had close friends but I was shy and I definitely have/had his personality. I am very hard on myself and it drives me crazy to this day (I'm now 30) how relentlessly positive my parents are about my every action even when I actually screw up or don't perform well to the point where I stopped bothering to even talk to them about my fears and doubts because the answer "you are so wonderful and you're making this problem up in your head" is not helpful.
One day one of my professors (a pediatrician actually) explained how he dealt with his child when he was disappointed about not playing baseball well or whatever it was. He acknowledged that that was a real thing and only then followed up with something true, meaningful and positive. An offer to help improve the situation is a bonus. For instance "yeah you struggled getting on base today and it's always disappointing to lose you must feel crummy that youre not the greatest hitter but it's just a game I'm proud of you that you were so supportive of your teammates and gracious to the other team. Want to go to to the batting cages and work on it?" You get the idea. This resonated with me so much...I have never more wished for a time machine just to go back and tell my parents how much more their support would have meant if they also acknowledged my real difficulties and how much more trust I could put in their words when they were supportive knowing that their assessment of me was honest and not just empty platitudes.
posted by Skadi at 7:39 PM on June 15, 2014 [22 favorites]

As a couple of people already mentioned, when you have these talks, you might want to start with validation rather than cheerleading. Validation doesn't mean automatically agreeing with him. It can be as simple as conveying that you've heard what he's saying, and that it sounds like a tough thing to be going through. You can also try the tactic of saying that everyone has moments where they feel down on themselves (maybe even give examples of times when you've felt that way), and that our emotional responses don't necessarily match reality. (You don't want to come on too strongly with this because you risk minimizing his experience, or making the conversation about other people when it should be focused on him.) You could even try to draw him out by asking if there's anything in particular that made him feel this way, and then if he seems amenable to it, you can talk through that particular instance together.

Another thing that has already been touched on but that bears repeating is that hard work is so much more important in the long run than innate skill. There was a great metafilter post awhile back about research showing how destructive praising a child's intelligence can be. In practical terms, it might help if you make sure to praise his hard work (for example, when you see him studying, don't just mention this out of the blue), or his willingness to stick with something that is challenging.

More concretely, maybe he can explore other activities that don't have the same competitiveness that sports do. Alternatively, maybe try to find something that he enjoys enough that he's less concerned at being the best. The idea mentioned above to try to find a unique activity/hobby is a great suggestion as well.

You also mention that he's really good at memorizing animal facts. Do you have a pet and if not, is it feasible to get one? Pets obviously require a lot of work, and this isn't something to pursue just to cheer him up, but if he's an animal lover, it might help him feel less isolated.

Lastly, and I know this isn't something you specifically asked about, but have you considered having him tested for any sort of learning problems? It seems like getting B's and C's if he's really putting in a lot of effort is a bit on the low-end grade wise. This may not be relevant at all, but at the very least if it's something you haven't explored, maybe you could discuss it with his teachers or school administrators.

On a personal note, as someone who had a lot of my own issues ignored while I was growing up, I just want to say thanks for being such a concerned and caring parent. It can be really easy to overlook this kind of thing as kids being kids, and I think it's great that you're tuned into his experience and taking what he says seriously. It's also really a good sign that he's being open with you about these thoughts and feelings.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:07 PM on June 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

So, my kid is a little like this, and she does actually sword fight. I'm not sure I'd recommend something so brutally competitive to another kid in her shoes, if that kid wasn't already enthralled with the idea. It is very, very hard for her to go to a tournament and get beaten four bouts in a row, for instance. For her first two years she was the shortest kid in her bracket by at least six inches, and she got beaten a lot, and felt miserable and inferior a lot. I figure it's good for developing her persistence and sportsmanship (note: she LOVES fencing, and does not want to quit, even when she is discouraged), but if I were trying to make her have less of an inferiority complex, I'd absolutely switch her to something far less competitive. Like, I don't know, geocaching or scouts or something.
posted by instamatic at 8:08 PM on June 15, 2014

I don't mean to focus specifically on sword fighting/fencing in my response. What I was trying to convey was "unusual hobby" might be less important than "collaborative rather than competitive hobby." Scouting. Mushroom hunting. Volunteering at the animal shelter. Working a part-time young-kid-friendly job, like dog walker or library volunteer or mothers helper. Anything that gives him positive feedback without adding the pressure of yet another thing to be ranked at.
posted by instamatic at 8:15 PM on June 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

yes - I should probably point out that was *not* fencing. Nor, as far as I know, competitive, though I guess you could go on with it and be so. The kids worked with a range of weapons and from what I saw (open night) the emphasis was on just having a good time and being good with a number of sharp, pointy objects without killing yourself or other people. (I think they make their bread and butter with adults wanting to learn how to fight for stage, screen, and exercise.) Strongly suspect it wouldn't have worked so well if it were the sort of thing with an obvious tournament or competitive structure.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:32 PM on June 15, 2014

If you think that it'd help to validate his feelings more, a book on that topic is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. What does he say about what would help? I do wonder if improv or Nature-Thon or scouts or volunteering at an animal shelter or something else might be worth trying.
posted by salvia at 8:38 PM on June 15, 2014

ps. not suggesting you need to let your kid wave a blade around, but just that the unusualness of the activity was what seemed to work here.

Seconding this - Daniel Radcliffe was also kind of an outsider when he was a little boy, and the biggest reason his parents let him audition for a BBC production of DAVID COPPERFIELD was that it would give him something to brag about at school; they never expected he would get the part, they just thought he could brag about auditioning for a TV show because it was something unusual.

But that also points out the possibility that this weird thing that he tries just because it's something different could turn out to be The Thing He Was Born To Do. But even if it isn't, it'll still be His Thing, and that can have its own appeal.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:42 PM on June 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

What about having him learn to play a musical instrument? It doesn't have the competitive aspect that is inherent in a lot of other activities, and although innate talent is helpful, it's really all about how much time and effort you put into practicing. Plus, he can eventually join orchestra or band, which will give him an additional social outlet. You can usually rent an instrument and take some lessons for not too much money just to get a sense of whether or not he's interested in it.
posted by litera scripta manet at 9:44 PM on June 15, 2014

I had a lot of struggles as a kid, and I'm not sure that there is anything my parents, teachers, or any other adult, authority figure types could have done. As far as I was concerned, they DID NOT GET IT. And although I really wanted help, I immediately shut down and resisted any of their attempts to "help." I do believe, however, that an older friend or mentor could have made an enormous impact. Someone who wasn't associated with my parents or adults. Someone I looked up to. I had a few brief interactions with people like this, and they had a lasting impact on me...I wish I could have had someone like that more consistently.
posted by hannahelastic at 9:51 PM on June 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Okay, so, the black cloud viewpoint is not something that can be reasoned with. It's a big ball of anxiety and fear. If you try to convince someone that the black cloud is not actually that black, you will get nowhere. Everything you say will be countered. There's a perfect system of black anti-logic inside the cloud, and trying to take control of it will make you crazy.

This is not quite the same thing, I don't think, but I'm reminded of Hyperbole and a Half's 'Adventures in depression'. The bit about the fish. `The problem might not even have a solution. But you aren't necessarily looking for solutions. You're maybe just looking for someone to say "sorry about how dead your fish are" or "wow, those are super dead. I still like you, though."' (this will make sense if you read through it.)

I would like to gently suggest that you re-frame your goals here. It is of course great that you want to 'flip this switch' and help your kid see himself in a positive light. But you can't force these things. It is difficult to be in pain when there is an expectation that you should be okay, but this gets compounded if your pain becomes a problem to be solved, or worse, if it becomes a source of distress to other people that you then have to manage. 'I'm fine, mom' is your son managing the problem of his emotions for you, because he's getting that you're distressed by his suffering and want it to go away, he doesn't feel there is a safe way to go on suffering under these circumstances, and so he buries it. It's a bad pattern as I'm sure you know. In time he may come to associate pain with guilt and shame and he may start to blank out his emotions completely in order to cope.

I don't want to make things sound too bleak. There's actually a lot of things you can do and they're not that difficult or complicated. Your son needs his home to be a safe space where he can feel emotions without them becoming problems. This means validating what he's feeling -- acknowledging that yes, what he's going through is hard. It hurts to feel alone, to feel like you have no value, and it's true that there are things that are missing in his life. And that anyone would feel this way in his situation, and in fact we all feel this way sometimes, but it's okay, feeling sad is just an emotion and it will rise and fall and you'll feel better soon. You need to feel the sadness and acknowledge its truth before you can move on from it. You can also express your reality to him, that you believe he has value even if he has a hard time feeling that way himself right now (take care to identify these as your feelings, not what you think his feelings should be), and that this will always be true regardless of his achievements.

Speaking personally, my parents were never able make a safe space for sadness and pain. They were too personally invested in the idea that I would be happy that acknowledging these things was threatening to them -- as if it would be admitting failure on their part -- and any expression of pain lead to a sort of very loud and public mobilization of resources to Fix The Problem, whatever it was. But the fact that he is bringing these feelings to you right now is a really good sign; I think by age ten I had already slammed the door firmly shut years ago, having learned my lesson a few times. For now he still feels safe expressing his pain to you. There is a window, though it may close soon. He may need to feel sad about how lonely he feels, or how un-special he feels. Maybe really sad. Maybe for a long time. Sensitive kids have a rough time in the world. But if he can actually feel these things, then they will let go and he won't be stuck being tortured by them. The heavier the tears, the more light and free you feel afterward. Best wishes.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:34 PM on June 15, 2014 [20 favorites]

I often felt that way and when my parents tried to get me some counselling, I was so embarrassed that I pretended everything was fine and never got any help.

One thing that would have helped was if I'd been able to choose a pet of my own.
posted by misspony at 11:40 PM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

It took me more than thirty years to realize that so much of my own self-confidence issues had to do with my father's inferiority complex and self-centeredness. He has all sorts of techniques he uses to try to ensure that he's the center of attention in any situation and is quite a talker, using body language and other rhetorical tricks to pressure others into reacting with interest and to practically orchestrate an audience the response the way a television producer might: eliciting chuckles and gasps at the right moment. At the same time he's got a short temper and as a child I'd learn very quickly that it was in my own interest to follow the script, be attentive, and react the way he desired.

Conversely, when I said something, he would not pay anywhere near as much attention as he expected to receive himself and in fact, unless he was in a very good mood, he would intentionally try to show as much impassiveness and disinterest as possible, lest any of the spotlight be taken off from him and as though we were in some sort of competition. I would start trying to say something and he would cut me off before I'd finished the first sentence or would immediately say something dismissive about whatever point I'd made, then spend fifteen or twenty minutes straight talking about whatever my first few words had made him think of.

Consequently I've had this life-long feeling that I'm an extremely boring person, which any of my friends whom I've explained this to have been puzzled by.

Of course, as a kid I couldn't have articulated any of this. To me, this was just the way that everyone in the world besides my mother behaved. Your son's problems might not be the same but I heartily concur about having him see a therapist: if a good therapist had been able to help me ferret out and achieve an understanding of where the associated feelings came from, I could have much more successfully dealt with them, perhaps avoided my severe and long-lasting depression, and lived a much happier life.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 11:42 PM on June 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

I haven't read this book yet, but I came across it recently and thought it looked interesting: Freeing your child from negative thinking.

I really like the suggestions in this thread about finding one activity that your child does love. Don't keep him on a sport if he doesn't truly enjoy it, just because you think it's good for him. If school sucks, it is extra important that all after school activities are fun.
posted by blub at 12:59 AM on June 16, 2014

Improv was mentioned upthread and I'll expand. Improv is a tool, not just an activity with an outcome of producing scenes that may or may not be funny. Improv classes teach people how to go with their instincts, that nearly any choice is ok, and that failure is a part of learning (and funny, fun scenes). Improv's main tenet is validation in the form of "yes, and..." Yes, I accept your choice to say that this chair is a piano, and I will now be Jerry Lee Lewis playing Great Balls of Fire on it. Improv can be particularly freeing for imaginative kids who are in their heads a lot, or who struggle with being accepted or being good enough. You don't have to want to perform onstage to benefit from improv classes.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 2:16 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your guy seems to be trapped in some horridly painful thought patterns like black and white thinking and all or nothing thinking. A good therapist is the answer, except well, Dad.

So I would get myself a reading list and start looking for books written at a level that your guy can understand that will give him the tools he needs to work on his difficult thought patterns without the help of a therapist. I don't know what books there are suitable to a ten year old with his reading level which is why I say the reading list is yours. You're going to have to read through them and find one or more of them that he can use if you go this route. You are looking for Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

Try the library, of course, before you hit the on-line bookstore. Last I heard Abe books was a reliable place to hunt for books on line if you don't like Amazon.

Meanwhile you can look into distraction. Little guy is probably ruminating and may give you an idea when he is ruminating. Finding fun and exciting things for him to do so that he has lots of other stuff to think about will potentially help. I am thinking goofy movies, not too challenging video games, hanging with a bud, bad comedy books and the like. The idea here is that each day he should have at least one safe thing to think about.

I'd also double check with his teachers if you son is differently abled. For example he may have auditory processing deficits which are making school difficult for him. If they can point out anything like this it gives you a new approach for him to try. It may be that he is using the same non-working strategies "Try harder when listening" and would benefit from focusing on other strategies. "Don't worry about listening to the coach, just walk the field and get a feel for where the different players territories lie and then observe the other players one by one."

Finally, do some research to see if something somewhere is sapping his self esteem. Is he being bullied, is there or was there a teacher who was a bad fit, or possibly abusive, has anyone been using him, can he physically not keep up?

One thing to consider is dropping him back a grade in school. It may be if your little guy was born in the fall or early winter that he is the youngest in his cohort and is simply behind in his development compared to all his peers. When you hold him back he magically becomes one of the most advanced kids in his cohort which can do wonders for him.
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:56 AM on June 16, 2014

What I wish I knew then that I know now:

-we're all skilled at different things. Help him to find his thing and let him know if he's good at it AND has fun it doesn't matter how other people react to it.
-you can't force best friendships. They're very much like long term relationships. They happen when they happen.

How should you proceed:
-Do NOT behave in such a way that your son has to put on a brave face so you don't feel bad.
-Nthing the acknowledging his feelings and not telling him he's wrong about how he feels.
-Help him try things until he finds something he's excited about. Then support that. That increases his chances of finding good friends because they'll have a passion in common.
-Don't do too much to try and protect him. My mother always tried to shelter me and it was honestly a big problem in my adolescence and early adulthood. I couldn't stand on my own two feet.

Look, our culture perpetuates this image that childhood is or should be a joyful and innocent time, but all kids have struggles just like adults. Have faith in him that he's learning how to deal with the world in his way. Your job is to help him develop the inner resources to do that.

Just make sure he knows that the people who matter love him and always will.
posted by dry white toast at 4:07 AM on June 16, 2014

A word of caution on having him learn a musical instrument: While it can be great, it can also be really tedious, especially if you lack natural talent. I quit the piano after eight years, five of which I spent with a teacher who thought I wasn't all that talented. I knew I sucked. I didn't enjoy practicing because I didn't see the point. Plus, when people at school heard I played the piano, they tried to get me to play during music projects, and then I had to explain that I can't sight read and felt embarrassed. Plus, the orchestra's pianist was younger than me, which made me feel a bit like a failure. So musical instruments can be competitive.
I was much happier in choir, although even there I never scored any solos and my music teacher didn't think I had it in me. (My theory now as an adult is that he just gave the solos to all the Rachel Berry types who threw fits when they showed up once in a while and weren't treated like special little snowflakes, while he reserved me as the reliable base to guide the rest of the background youngster sopranos. But I didn't know that back then.)

This is, of course, purely anecdotal, but I wanted to show you what could happen. You can do any kind of thing and find out you suck at it compared to others, and I think that might not be a good revelation for your son right now. It may be better to let him pick something he may enjoy, regardless of whether he's good or bad at it, but at the moment, he might not be able to enjoy something.

I wonder if you could find a book or TV show with a character like him who ends up finding his own happiness somewhere.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 4:19 AM on June 16, 2014

Best answer: My son was your son. What helped was reframing the conversation to be about his progress, his comparisons against himself a week/month/year ago, as opposed to his comparisons against other people. Don't go on a quest to help him Find His Thing, just ensure he's on a forward-moving path and help him learn to appreciate his own progress on it. As long as he's comparing himself with others, he will be unhappy, whether he's 10 or 100. He needs to measure his value internally, not externally. My son is 20 now and still struggles with it (I should be in college like Joe, I should be saving for a house like Jim...), but he's mindful of it and doesn't let those thoughts take hold the way they used to.
posted by headnsouth at 4:38 AM on June 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

Could you get him involved in helping others? Encourage him to take on a significant volunteer commitment or service project? I know 10 is young for this, but maybe he could help elderly people in the neighborhood, volunteer at a pet shelter like a couple of people suggested above, or join a group that cleans up parks or something. You could do it with him if it's too hard to find something he could do himself at his age. Your school or, if you have one, religious community might be able to help you find opportunities. Volunteering is something that could take him out of himself a little and show him that what he does has genuine value.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:31 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

If, as you say, your son is struggling in most areas of his life (school grades, sports, socializing) then it's a good idea to get him tested for learning disabilities or anything else that might be holding him back. Of course he's going to feel depressed and discouraged if everything is a struggle. What do his teachers think? Have you talked to them?

Therapy is also a good idea. Why does his dad need to agree to it? Is it a court order or condition of custody that your son can't go to therapy without his dad's consent? Is it possible to talk his dad into it? Or can you find some kind of therapy that isn't actually called therapy - maybe a play group - and get your son into that?

It's really tough on a kid to feel left behind or not as skilled in most areas of his life. Especially if making B's and C's takes effort, then maybe a learning disability is the problem. Otherwise, one of the best things you can do is find something your son is good at and encourage him to succeed there. He needs to be good at something to offset all the difficulty he's having in other areas of his life.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:48 AM on June 16, 2014

My middle son was a lot like your son. When he was around eleven or twelve he started reading a lot, mostly science fiction. He became known as the kid who had read the most books in his school.

In retrospect, I think all that reading helped him to get some perspective on his own life, to understand that there were much bigger issues than whether or not a person was good at sports or popular.

Just saw on preview Rosie's suggestion above about testing for learning disabilities. Yes, my son got tested when he was around 13, and yes, he did turn out to have a learning disability; he got help, and it did make him feel better about himself.

Thirty years later he's a wonderful husband, dad, and friend to many. Various friends of his have told me that he's the one they go to when they need to talk about their problems.
posted by mareli at 5:54 AM on June 16, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you to all who have (and possibly will) take time to answer my question. I truly appreciate your insight.

Just to follow up, he does have a disability that is being addressed with a Section 504 Plan in school but which also contributes to some of his social struggles. Also, I have tried many times to help him find "his" thing, it just hasn't happened yet (and, if he is like me, may not ever happen). Even though he isn't good at sports, it is what he enjoys. Indeed, its something I admire about him; that he keeps plucking away despite not being the star athlete on the team. He also plays the trumpet and is in chorus but that really isn't his thing either. I really like the idea of improv/drama and have asked him about it, but as of right now, he says absolutely not.

While it would be great if he found something he loved and was sufficiently unique to give him a needed boost of confidence, right now I'm looking for approaches to help him be okay with the fact that he isn't naturally gifted in the things he enjoys and/or must do and, for that reason, help him alter his perspective, which, as someone mentioned up thread, is very black and white. I definitely have tried to be sympathetic/empathetic and not dismissive of his fears. As I stated, what I've done in the past is attempted to help him dial down to why he feels this way and whether this perception is "accurate." For example, is it really true no one likes him when he was just invited to a play date yesterday (that kind of thing). As I alluded to, I feel as if I'm stuck in a rut too and need some fresh ideas which is why reading these answers is very informative and helpful. Thank you again.
posted by youdontmakefriendswithsalad at 6:43 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

You mention that he has a 504 Plan at school, has he had a really good neuropsychological evaluation? It might be helpful to highlight his cognitive strengths in very specific terms that he can point to himself, but also might be helpful in tweaking the accommodations in place for him for the things he struggles with. The bonsus is that a good neuropsychologist looks at the cognitive pieces, but also is closely evaluating the personality traits and things like depression, anxiety, etc, that also might be getting in his way with an eye on identifying what would be really helpful to him right now. If you are thinking that therapy would be helpful, this might be a way to open that discussion with his other parent too in that the evaluation would be focused on finding medically/neurologically based information about this guy but may come up with a recommendation that therapy would be really helpful (and coming from a dispassionate "expert" might make it less of a topic of disagreement?).

You clearly love this guy and are working so hard to make his life better. I'm sure he knows that and that is really what's important. A book like this one might be useful to help both of you find some strategies to talk about this and help him see when he might be overly-hard on himself.
posted by goggie at 6:57 AM on June 16, 2014

Here's an activity idea: sounds like he likes animals, what about horseback riding lessons? Doesn't have to be competitive, you don't have to be naturally athletic to be good at it, it's something he can brag to his friends about that they likely don't get to do...
posted by catatethebird at 6:57 AM on June 16, 2014

When I try to nudge him to see things with a slightly less black cloud viewpoint he'll eventually get tired of me being his cheerleader and/or pointing out who he just played with last week an say "Never mind - I'm fine," which isn't reassuring at all. I'm worried.

As a former 10 year old boy, I can tell you that absolutely nothing makes boys feel like more of a loser than a cheerleading mom. Regardless of whether it's true or not, children do not believe the cool kids are getting pep talks from mommy.

When he complains that he's not good at something, ask him what he wants to do about it. Then, within reason, have him do that. If he doesn't have an idea, ask him to think about it, and follow up. The key, in my view, is for him to have an active hand in whatever he wants to do. Suggest activities, sure, but he should be the one choosing. You don't want him to feel like mom is going to get some friends for him. Don't point out all the things he is good at, or challenge the accuracy of his perceptions. He lives his life everyday. He is not wrong. He is unhappy with his lot in life; help him achieve his goals, don't "baby" him. He'll resent it.
posted by spaltavian at 7:01 AM on June 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was this kid, sort of. What helped me was finding a few things I was good at (in my case: drawing and playing guitar) and using them to shore up my sense of self worth and become more popular. And getting friends outside of my school, so I could start fresh with them and not have all the 'loser' baggage.
posted by signal at 7:12 AM on June 16, 2014

Indeed, its something I admire about him; that he keeps plucking away despite not being the star athlete on the team.

Assuming you tell him that specifically, yeah? If not, maybe one heartfelt comment while you're driving home from practice or whatever - "listen, buddy, I gotta tell you - I actually think that's really awesome. Sid and Jerry on the team are good, but they have it easy - you're still hanging in there even though it's a little harder for you. You are busting your butt and you aren't giving up - and that's REALLY brave, and awesome."

So many times parents praise results rather than the process - and that's something that can bite kids in the butt. Even when they are doing well - the current thinking about gifted kids is that if you praise the A's and the achievement which came easy for them, they end up thinking that results are all that matters, and when something comes along that they can't do easily, they tend to chicken out. (I was a gifted kid, and I can definitely speak to the truth of this.) So praising his resilience and tenacity, and helping him realize that that's just as big a part of success, could really help.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:26 AM on June 16, 2014 [9 favorites]

right now I'm looking for approaches to help him be okay with the fact that he isn't naturally gifted in the things he enjoys and/or must do

In addition to a lot of other great advice in this thread about validating what he feels, I'll add that the research out there mostly shows that "natural talent" is somewhere on the spectrum from 'not actually a thing at all' to 'roughly equivalent to the skill of someone who works really hard at something'. So I think it's also important to praise him for trying, to remind him that his hard work will help him improve, and that lots of things aren't easy. Maybe even give him some examples of tough things that you and his dad got through with hard work?
posted by capricorn at 7:52 AM on June 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't know if this is helpful or not, but my daughter tends to get frustrated and down on herself when something doesn't come easily to her. I follow the advice EmpressCallipygos gave above a lot, but a new thing we are doing is to learn to hula hoop together. So she actually sees me outside, dropping the hoop, picking it up, trying again, dropping again, cursing under my breath, ad infinitum until I finally, finally manage to do whatever I'm trying. I feel like I'm really walking the walk with her, instead of just *telling* her that persistence is what's important.
posted by instamatic at 8:30 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

His father who, as I mentioned, is involved, thinks I'm overreacting and would not agree to therapy.

What in the actual fuck is this about? It's your son who could benefit from therapy. It's not ECT or drugs or joining a goddamned cult, it's your son sitting down with a trained professional who has actually received training in this particular arena so that this professional person can use said training to help your son to generate some coping strategies to maybe make his life less shitty.

If your son had a broken arm, would his father be all "just rub some dirt on it, he doesn't actually need to see a doctor"?
posted by disconnect at 9:52 AM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah honestly I don't think you need dad's permission for therapy unless it's specifically written into a divorce decree or something.
posted by bq at 10:18 AM on June 16, 2014

Is your son getting any other help for his disability other than a 504 plan? He probably ought to be getting at least physical and/or occupational therapy as well. I know you said your ex was opposed to therapy, but I presume that means talk therapy and not OT/PT.

If you overruled your ex and got therapy for your son, would that have Bad Consequences (loss of custody, a court fight, etc)? Maybe what would help is you getting evidence that therapy would really help your son and then enlisting a professional advocate (or even his teacher) to help your ex see the necessity for therapy.

I say this because it doesn't seem good, to me, for your son to struggle endlessly with no prospect of improvement. While I believe that persistent hard work and effort are as important as innate talent in many areas, it can be discouraging and depressing to put in persistent effort, and really work hard, and get no results. Do you see the effort your son puts in to sports and schoolwork having any results? Or is he endlessly slogging away and getting nowhere?

If therapy is absolutely out of the question, you might want to look at Rick Lavoie's website. He is the author of books and DVD's on helping children with learning disabilities succeed, especially in social areas. His books and DVDs might be of help to you and your son.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:18 AM on June 16, 2014

I have a couple more things to offer you. As is probably clear I'm pretty familiar with this black and white way of thinking -- both myself and my partner are very prone to it. When things get overwhelming and fear and anxiety start coming out, there is no notion of accuracy, or reasoning, or 'why'. These are higher-level cognitive functions and the anxiety comes from a much more primitive place. Think screaming toddler. In this state the toddler wants to be soothed and told it will be okay. Even as an adult I still have a toddler inside who likes to be soothed and held in hard times. I know you mean well, but trying to unravel the 'why' of feelings is likely to backfire. Often there is no 'why', or if there is, it's very confusing and raw, and if there is pressure to come up with a 'why' -- and then have whatever reasons get offered up be questioned and refuted -- it can make it seem like the validity of the emotion is being denied. Like, there isn't a sufficiently good 'why', so I shouldn't be feeling this way, but I do, so what now? I must be bad or broken in some way. As a kid there is no way I could have explained why I was so scared and anxious all the time. As an adult I now have the vocabulary and the history of it, but it took more than a year of therapy to unravel.

I don't want to alarm you, but black and white thinking and anxiety tell me that your son is carrying some heavy burdens. For me as a child this manifested as a very narrow conception of what being 'okay' meant, tight control over myself and my environment to keep things 'okay', intense pressure on myself to live up to what 'okay' was, and lurking in the background a big pit of darkness that threatened to swallow me up if I ever slipped up and wasn't 'okay'. Black and white thinking is characteristic: either I am okay, or I am lost. Your son is probably terrified of being lost, somehow. And another characteristic of anxiety is that it takes the worst case scenarios and plays them out till the end and makes them so vivid that they feel real. So when he feels like he is alone today, he is feeling a future lifetime of always being alone; a future lifetime of never feeling special; etc. He's also feeling all of his past perceived failures simultaneously as well; they all compound at once.

What this means is while it is great to try to propose things that might help, such as new activities, you should think about doing that at a time when he is feeling resourced, not overwhelmed and caught in a fear loop. While in the black cloud, action is very difficult. It might be a good idea to try checking in emotionally (how have things been lately?) at regular intervals but especially on days when he seems to be feeling good. Those days are good days to make plans and talk about things that are bothering him. On bad days, it might be best to just help him get through it. Emotions tend to rise and fall; there is likely a rhythm to it. I think the number one thing my parents could have done is actually nothing at all. If they had refrained from making the problem worse, it would have been so much easier. When my partner or I get stuck in the black cloud we just hold each other and say I'm sorry, that sounds really hard, and eventually it lifts a little, though maybe tears come and emotions pour out along the way.

In time the goal should absolutely be to have a conception of himself that he is okay and doesn't need to compare himself to others. Paradoxically you can't implant this in him or make him believe it about himself; it has to grow inside him from his own feelings. I think his fear is not really about being gifted athletically or having friends; at the root it's about being able to be in the world at all. The black pit is something like 'you will never be a real human being like all the others; you are fundamentally broken'. If his anxiety is treated as a sign he is broken, it will spiral and self-reinforce. But if he can learn to navigate his own feelings -- if you can give him support, but leave him to work through these things on his own -- and if he feels that you trust him and believe he can handle this -- then he'll start to believe that he is capable. Hope this is helpful.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:37 AM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wanted to say something about how your son is already doing incredibly well by trying. By continuing to show up even though things are hard, he's already head and shoulders above every single kid with a "natural gift" for whatever it is he feels he's deficient in. But really, Eyebrows McGee said everything I wanted to say, and Percussive Paul said even more. Validating the way he feels is important - I stopped telling my parents when I was having a hard time early on, because I could tell that they both became very anxious when I found a subject difficult, and I wanted to make them proud, not sad. Praise him, not for succeeding, but for doing his best and working hard despite frustration.

I also would like to throw out the names of two books that are related to the topic of talent and how finding something easy, especially as a child, is zero indication of performing highly in the long run. These books are called "The Genius in All of Us" and "Talent is Overrated." The latter is especially helpful, because it lays out a step-by-step process of how to develop the skills you want at a high-performing level. The books talk about early involvement in a field in children, but they don't focus on children in general. I'm suggesting them solely because, as someone who always found school easy (except sports and most math) and who has been struggling with developing "stick-to-it-iveness" later in life, I found them incredibly enlightening.

Best wishes for both you and your son. :)
posted by Urban Winter at 2:22 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know you've said that your son doesn't want to do any different activities, and it sounds like he has a pretty full plate these days anyway, but one thing that jumps out at me is that all his activities are highly competitive in ways that emphasize knowing your place in a talent-based hierarchy. If you're in the school band, you know what "chair" you are, and in the chorus there are kids who get solos and kids who don't. In sports, it's immediately apparent whether you're good or not, reflected in numbers on a big board for everyone to see.

One thing I remember about my own childhood and the things I really loved doing, is that for a lot of them, I wasn't that good, but I also didn't need to know I wasn't that good. I took dance classes, and I kind of knew I wasn't going to be a ballerina when I grew up, but I liked doing it, enjoyed the classes, and had fun performing in the recitals. It didn't occur to me to feel competitive with other kids. Nobody ever rubbed my nose in not being good enough. My parents signed me up for a relatively laid back and uncompetitive dance school, and honestly I didn't really lose sleep over it. It's OK for activities to be just for fun -- or even something you do in an unstructured way at home just because you enjoy noodling around with it -- and not a test of some kind.
posted by Sara C. at 2:42 PM on June 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

One of the things American society does really, really badly is winning and losing, because the overwhelming message is that WINNING IS EVERYTHING and LOSING IS HORRIBLE.

When in fact losing is normal.

So we try to instill that in our kids. You win some, you lose some, and it's fine to feel good about winning and bad about losing, but losing is something that happens. Sometimes the other team is just better, or gets a lucky bounce, or sunspots.

It seems to have helped our 9-year-old be much more emotionally stable about sports, and focused on "did I do my best" rather than "we lost".
posted by scrump at 2:38 PM on June 19, 2014

Being the worst player on the soccer field is hard

I was so very, very much your kid, except my parents were too busy with all the kids that came after to care as much as you do.

I was too short, too slow, and just not quite smart enough.

I remember one summer in particular I was put in our church's music camp for a few weeks. I don't remember what tasks I had been given or even what the theme of the camp was or what our final performance was around. The only thing I remember about that camp was the very end - when they gave out the awards. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat, hoping beyond hope that I'd finally be recognized, that I would get a certificate for a change. For the first time.

And then, it happened - I did! They actually called my name! I was going up on stage! People were clapping for me!

I got the award for "Trying Hardest." It literally said that on my certificate. I was so very, very proud of myself.

For about 30 seconds, because the next award was for the Best Performance. I don't remember who it went to, I don't really remember anything else but sitting there as the realization creeped over me that I could actually try hardest and yet someone else could try much less and do much better. And then the inevitable follow-on realization: this would be the case for the rest. of. my. life.

That's a lot for a 10 year old mind.

Life sucks sometimes. That's life.

Your kid gets the benefit of learning this early on. It's an incredible perspective to have. It will make him less selfish and care more for others. It will bless him with an unyielding work ethic, that will be recognized and will take him places in whatever he ends up choosing to do. He will be that guy that everyone can rely on - you can already see this in him, that loyalty trait will be something that people will some day remember at his funeral.

Speaking as your 10 year old kid, I can say that this is something I'd be happy to have on my headstone.

He's going to be just fine. Good on you for caring so much. Keep up the good work.

The one thing I'd encourage you to do is to give him opportunities to try as many things as possible. I personally found I could get REALLY DAMN GOOD (like competitive good) at sports that were not team-based. I took up downhill skiing and martial arts with particular zeal - they were things I could practice repetitively and see marked improvement in. Not saying that individual sports has to be his thing, but there are Good Things like that and no shortage of options for you to explore (art, computers, music, whatever).
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:07 AM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

« Older Recommendations for specific things on an ongoing...   |   Samurai Jack in widescreen Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.