Our 9-year-old threw his writing book on the floor. Turning to Mummy, he burst into tears and was inconsolable, refusing all manner of comfort and reassurances.
“I can’t even get this right!” he declared. “I’m a failure!”
Despite our attempts to convince him otherwise, he marched into his room, slamming the door behind him.
The past few weeks have been hard for our elder son. The level of his writing work has increased almost exponentially, and he has been feeling the pressure to do well. Every mistake is a glaring blemish, and he experiences a deep sense of frustration when he is not always able to complete his work without any mistakes.
Psychologist Erik Erikson, in his pioneering work on developmental psychology, argued that there are 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development. The 4th Stage, “Industry vs. Inferiority”, occurs during childhood, between the ages of 5 and 12. At this stage, children are learning to read and write, do sums, and other things on their own. At this stage, peer groups also gain greater significance and become a major source of a child’s self- esteem.
Children at this stage experience the need to win approval by demonstrating specific competencies that are valued by society. If they are encouraged and reinforced for their initiatives, they will begin to feel industrious or competent, confident in their ability to achieve goals. However, if the child cannot develop the specific skills they feel society is demanding of them, they may develop a sense of inferiority.
How then can we help our children “succeed” in the “Industry vs. Inferiority” stage of their development? If we examine Erikson’s ideas, there are two main ways – build our children’s confidence and self-esteem, and help them feel secure in their friendships with their peers.
Anxiety and stress are particularly significant among children who are going through changes in life.
Building confidence and self-esteem
I recently conducted a workshop on the topic of helping children manage transitions in their lives. I shared that anxiety and stress are particularly significant among children who are going through changes in life. It does not help that children are often unable to articulate when they feel stressed, and instead choose to use negative phrases such as “I am a failure” or “nobody likes me”.
In order to create a safe space for our children, we have to allow them to talk and express their emotions in a healthy manner. One crucial factor that is often overlooked is that we should try to listen first and not pre-judge what our children say.
We have been using the above methods with our 9-year-old. When dealing with a meltdown, we allow him to express his emotions, wait for him to calm down, and speak to him only after his emotions have played out.
It is unwise to deal with children when they are in the midst of a tantrum, as they are unable to process the situation logically while emotionally upset. So we allow our son to express the full measure of his emotions, and concurrently accept that things are hard for him.
Once the situation is calmer, we encourage him and help him to re-wire his negative scripts by replacing them with more positive words such as, “Z, you may not have gotten that question right, but you are not a failure. You are a boy who is learning how to get your work done well, and we are so proud of you! We will be proud of you regardless whether you get the answer wrong or right!”
One crucial factor that is often overlooked is that we should try to listen first and not pre-judge what our children say.
Helping children develop secure friendships
Friends are an important aspect of a child’s life. As parents, it is important for us to monitor our children’s friends, and to assess if these relationships are healthy. This involves teaching our children how to choose the right friends, and what is acceptable behaviour within a friendship.
We also need to teach our kids to be assertive if a friend tries to bully them. They should learn not to take things into their own hands, but to tell trusted adults like their parents. This also means that we have to stand up for our children when they have been taken advantage of. Of course, we also have to ascertain if our kids are at fault, and if so, manage the situation accordingly.
Our younger son has had a number of scrapes with older children. At the age of 7, he is generally very personable and makes friends easily. However, due to his amiable personality, he has been taken advantage of a number of times.
I recall a recent incident at an indoor playground when an older girl accused him of snatching a ball. The girl’s mother had scolded my son for this, but our son insisted that he did not snatch the ball. I felt that he was telling the truth, so I told him I believed him. I then calmly informed the girl’s mother that my son did not snatch the ball and that she should clarify what had happened with her daughter. The mother stared at her daughter, who looked away in silence.
In addition to helping our kids manage the issues in their relationships, it is also important to help them build friendships. At a social skills workshops that I conduct, I tell parents that there are actually many steps involved in making a friend. The first step is inclusion, which is helping a friend feel welcome if he or she is new to a group.
You can do this by introducing the new friend to different group members, and sharing one or two strengths about the person. This would help the new friend be more comfortable in a group setting, and hopefully strengthen the relationships in the group.
Identity and acceptance
The childhood years are a time when children deal with the key issues of identity and acceptance. By listening without judging, and helping them to build confidence even in the face of mistakes or poor behaviour, our children learn that home is a safe haven where they can run to in the midst of stress, express themselves freely, and develop to their fullest potential.
For it is only when our children feel secure and accepted by us and by others, that they can be free to learn, to play, and to grow, and to discover their passions in life.
Mark Lim is Consultant & Counsellor at The Social Factor, a consultancy and counselling agency which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, mentoring and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 9 and 7.
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