Q: My 9-year-old stepson seems increasingly negative and anxious. We thought it was due to our move (still within a half hour of the mother), but his mom mentioned that he complains he has no friends at school since his friends are in different classes/recesses. It coincides with him crying when his father leaves for work (he didn’t do this previously), crying after he comes here because he misses his mom, and crying when he goes there because he misses his dad.
There is lots of crying for other reasons as well. I don’t know if he cries at school, but I suspect if he does that is increasing his social isolation. The only times he truly lights up is when he describes past injuries or illnesses, or say, the paper cut he got that day. He played goalie for hockey and the first thing he told me was he caught a puck on bare skin. Not that he blocked a bunch of shots and they won the game.
We try to emphasize the good happening and downplay every gripe he gives. From what I know of his other home environment, small injuries are fawned over and all feelings are discussed and parsed/etc. When he’s with other kids, he delights in enforcing rules and lording over people, despite not being particularly good at the games/sports. When I showed my latest ultrasound pics (this behavior came on well before the pregnancy/announcement), his first response was “Wow, he’s ugly!” Granted 4D pictures are not perfectly lifelike and I explained that to him, but I was thinking what a little punk.
I mentioned to his dad that he is really becoming that guy we all avoid at office Christmas parties. He’s a bit shy when it comes to making friends and I am afraid some of these behaviors are going to be off-putting to peers, making his situation worse.
His mom is pushing for therapy and my husband is inclined to agree with that. I am not sure he’s to that level. Anyway, that’s a lot of info. What do you suggest we do to redirect him? I had similar friend difficulties as a kid, including a school year in which all friends had a difference recess, so I thought I would approach the topic by talking about that and also explaining what “you reap what you sow” means. However, I’ve been a stepmom for a year and generally didn’t interact with kids prior to now.
A: From your question, I can see how much you care about your stepson and how much you ache for his floundering around in social situations. A couple of things to note before I offer some suggestions for what you and dad can do.
First, it sounds like your son is overwhelmed, whether with his own emotions about the move, his place in the family (you mention your pregnancy and that might worry him), the hard time he’s having making friends, etc. And some kids when they feel frustrated with themselves and with the situation, they cry. Unfortunately, when boys cry, it’s much more misunderstood by peers, by adults/teachers, and by themselves.
Second, I also think that perhaps there’s been too much talking about his crying and lack of friends, and “downplaying” his gripes isn’t the same as ignoring the gripes. You can’t make a child see the good when he’s bound and determined to see the negative.
What to do? For the crying, lack of friends, gripes, I’d go with starving the matter. He gets attention when he complains, when you and dad try to make him see the positive, etc. He’s fallen into a rut that even if he wanted to, he can’t get out of by himself.
Starve the negative beast by keeping your response to his gripes short and sweet. “Interesting.” “I see.” Very noncommittal to whether you’re agreeing with him or trying to jolly him out of the funk. This will take some time—this has been a long time building! But keep with it and you should see some improvements.
Use some the coping techniques to help him control his tears, such as putting his head down on his desk at school, taking deep breathes, counting to 10, etc. Crying when you don’t want to is very frustrating, so giving him some options of how HE can respond should help keep the crying shorter and more manageable.
And I had to laugh at his response to your ultrasound picture—that’s pure boy and pure kid! He was probably not trying to be mean, as kids blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, and seriously, babies (even those already born) aren’t always the most attractive! In other words, don’t take him so seriously.
Finally, play games with him, read books with him, find ways to share little droplets of your life as a child with him (very short!), cook his favorite meals (or better yet, have him cook with you), make sure that you are showing him your love in a million small ways (a touch on the arm, a hug in the morning—despite his protests, he will really love that. Find out his love language—is it touches, snuggle time, spending time with you or his dad? What makes him light up in relation to interactions with you? One of my sons loves to have snuggle time, another one loves it when I listen to him talk about something with my undivided attention.
Remember, you can’t change how his mother parents, but you can change how you respond to him.