Q: My 7-year-old son does well in school and sports and has a good number of friends. However, he often allows himself to be intimidated by other boys. He is a rule-follower and is more worried about getting in trouble than defending himself. I worry that other boys will see him as easy to pick on. Occasionally, he complains about how other boys treat him. What words can I use with him to explain how to be confident in himself and his athletic abilities, and not allow himself to be intimidated by other boys?
A: You’re describing a personality issue, not a behavior problem. It would appear that your son is not socially assertive, certainly not aggressive, a follower rather than a leader, and perhaps a pleaser to a fault. Personality traits can’t be talked out of someone and they certainly can’t be disciplined out of existence. Any personality trait will be to the individual’s benefit in some situations and a drawback in others.
Now, the qualifier in this equation involves three words: at this age. At the present time, at age seven, your son is not assertive. That does not mean he will always be unassertive. Both behavior and personality can change, but whereas behavior, especially a child’s, can change fairly quickly, personality characteristics (temperament) change over a relatively long period of time. Most shy children, for example, are no longer shy by the time they’re in their 30s.
That was certainly true in my case. I was painfully shy as a child. When I went to college, where my reputation didn’t follow me, I was able to slowly come out of my shell. My mother must have been aware of my social insecurities. Nonetheless, she made no attempt to solve that problem for me. I think she realized that doing so might well have made matters worse in the long run.
Today’s moms think it’s their job to solve all of their children’s problems, whatever they might be. The task is an impossible one, which is one huge reason why so many of today’s moms experience parenting as a stressful, anxiety-filled endeavor. To great degree, this issue is about an emotional boundary, or lack thereof. When an emotional boundary doesn’t exist between mother and child, the child’s disappointments and struggles become the mother’s disappointments and struggles. As the mother works to solve her child’s problems, her frustration and anxiety increase along with the child’s feeling that there must be something wrong with him. This quickly develops into a vicious cycle.
I encourage you to extend the same grace to your son that my mother extended to me. Don’t take this on as a project. Be supportive, but let your son figure things out on his own.
Keep in mind that when all is said and done, your son’s positives greatly outweigh his negatives. I’ll just bet, for example, that he’s considerate and tender-hearted. If so, then I predict he’s going to grow up to be a fine person, and a more assertive one at that.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions at his website, www.parentguru.com.