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When Things Go Wrong

QUESTION: My nine-year-old becomes frustrated very easily when things go wrong. He is a good athlete and enjoys sports. When he plays ball, he is all smiles as long as he gets a hit, but, if he strikes out, a very obvious change comes over him. He dwells on the negative, and can't seem to put it behind him. Ultimately, he walks off the field crying, with his head down. He does the same with his school work: If he doesn't understand immediately, he gives up. Any suggestions?

ANSWER: Your son's negative spiral is indeed something to be concerned about. He must learn to not give up when the going gets tough. Do not despair. He is still young, and there is time to turn his negativity around.

Your son has become his own worst enemy at a time when he most needs his resources to meet the challenge facing him. Clearly he wants very much to achieve, and is searching for his happiness only in success. While this is natural, it is not too early to help him begin to develop a more mature outlook which will yield him greater success and happiness in the long run.

Ask your son what he expects of himself. Does he believe that it is possible to hit a home run every time he goes up to bat? Does he expect that all school work will be easy? Does he think that he will always win and never be on a losing side? Gently direct his attention to stories of baseball players and others who have risen, then fallen, then risen to glory again! He will be interested to hear that his own heroes have, at some point, lost or failed. Give him details about how each may have surmounted their difficulties and made a comeback.

Help him find value in the struggle. Sit with him through his despair. If necessary, give him time to pout, but let him know that you want to have a talk with him when he is feeling a bit better. He will eventually learn that there is no giving up or running away from this issue because the consequence will always be to talk about it with you later! Over time the consistency and patience of your own approach to this problem will begin to sink in.

As for school, require that your son develop a thorough approach to his homework. Make a practice of checking it before allowing him to call it quits. Do not respond to his bad moods by giving in to him. Let him know that you are there to help him if there is something he is having difficulty understanding, but that you believe in his ability to "think through" the problems at hand.

For example, ask him to talk out loud to you when reasoning through a math problem. By doing so, you will be able to slow him down and help him develop an inner dialogue which will keep him focused. His eventual success will be his reward. You may learn that he simply needs to develop skills for concentration. If you feel he is still struggling after several attempts to help him conceptualize and strategize, consider a consult with an education specialist to assess the possibility of learning disabilities.

It is possible that he is experiencing difficulty in school due to learning problems which have not been recognized. Comparing himself to others may have led to lowered self-esteem and a propensity for simply giving up. He may be overcompensating by looking for success in sports, resulting in unrealistic expectations of himself and an over-sensitivity to failure. If so, his negative attitude is more likely to be a cry for help than a problem with his temperament.

Explore the roots of your son's frustration, offer help, and expect change. Do not allow your son's "bad attitude" to win. Let him know you believe in him, but stand firmly against his self-defeating behavior. Finally, introduce him to Thomas Edison's quote, "Success is made up of 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration!"


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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