Dear Kid Whisperer,
I’m at loss. My four year old is either emotionally damaged, a pessimist, or I’m doing something wrong. Every now and then he says things like “Nobody loves me”, “I’m a bad boy”, and “Nobody wants to play with me”. I don’t know what to do or say. I’ve tried reasoning with him and explaining things. I’ve tried telling him how many people love him. I tell him that he isn’t a bad boy, and that sometimes other kids like to play by themselves or with other kids. I even tried ignoring or saying something along the lines that it was his problem and/or he needs to figure out himself. It makes me either so sad or so mad when he says things like that. Please help. –Carol, New York, New York
I have good news: You are doing something wrong. Don’t feel badly. This is such a common problem for parents I work with. More good news: it’s a simple fix that has worked every time I have coached a parent on this specific procedure. While I suppose your child could have some kind of emotional problem (feel free to investigate this at some later date), I doubt it. Let’s quickly touch on the “why” of your problem before we get to the “how.”
Let’s just start with the idea that kids exhibit behaviors that get them what they want. Your kid’s behavior of saying, “Woe is me” is getting him what he wants in the form of you telling him how much so many people love him. Think of this behavior as him saying to you, “Tell me how much everybody loves me.” Of course this need for love and attention is normal and healthy. We are going to give him that love, but never when he “asks for it” through whining about how terrible his life is. You never want to plead for a kid to feel happier or feel better about himself because this gives the kid the implicit message that someone else is responsible for his happiness. This leads to feelings of entitlement and often, depression and, ironically, feelings of worthlessness.
So now the “how”: You were on the right track when you told him that this was his problem and that he needs to figure out the solution himself, but first we have to lay on the love BEFORE he tries to play the sad, little victim. Give him the love that he needs from the moment he wakes up. Lots and lots of hugs and kisses are in order. Tell him how lucky he is to have so many people who love him. Have his grandparents call just to express their love. Have friends and relatives make him cards and come over to shower him with adoring attention before he tries to throw himself an epic pity party.
Once you lay this groundwork, you can make waxing poetic about his sad life a non-functional behavior. Here’s how I would do it with your kid:
Kid: I am just horrendous. No one wants to play with me.
Kid Whisperer: Oh, no. What are you going to do?
Kid: I am telling you so you can solve my problem and make me happy.
Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. I am a Philadelphia Eagles fan, so I have my own problems. I only solve those. I know you can figure this out. If you want some help after thinking really hard about how to solve your problem, I might have some ideas. Good luck.
Later, if asked, you can tell him some options for how kids can make friends. Don’t demand that he solve this problem, because it’s not your problem. It’s his.