Q: My child is almost 9 years old, but he acts like he’s a toddler at times. He’s not flexible and doesn’t really have any friends. Anyone he has to our house for a playdate usually ends up wanting to go home early, or my son wants to have the control on what they do so they argue, or his friend gives in and goes along with what my son wants to do, because the friend is kind but my son is not. He’s also not flexible with our family, usually needing to get his own way — what game we play, the volume of music, never compromising. Any potential friends get fed up with being good-natured about his attitude, and usually don’t come back. He wants to have friends, but he doesn’t seem to understand that his behavior is what drives them away. I feel so bad for him, and want him to be liked, to be included, but he needs to understand that he has to change and be more easy-going. I’m worried he will always be alone and friendless. Is there anything I can do to help him?

A: It’s possible you had friends at his age, that you were flexible. Having a child who is different from our own childhood experiences can sometimes cause us to “catastrophize” about his/her future turning out badly. We assume the problems will continue, believing they signal disaster. I certainly understand your worry, as well as your wish to help your son be more successful. Rather than framing his problem with friends as “Why does he act this way?” Or “Why is he so controlling?” try reframing what you see to: “How can I help my child be successful? This is who he is.”

Another consideration is whether he is getting cues from you that he’s inflexible and difficult. Children are barometers, sensing the range of emotions, the “storm” brewing with the “atmospheric pressure.” If your son senses you think of him negatively, identifying him as the bad child and his peers as the good-natured ones, he will live up to that identity. This becomes a “conflict cycle,” with expectations — both yours and his — set for failure. He will believe you blame him for the problems with his friends, comparing him negatively against their flexibility. Much of what you witness is his temperament. He wants to be successful and clearly doesn’t know how. Talking with him about how he sees himself, and what blocks him when things aren’t going well, can be a very revealing conversation.



 




When he’s struggling, are you able to share his lens of what this feels like, without judgment, humiliation or blame? Don’t try to fix this, or rescue him, nudging him to be the child you wish he was. Your fear of this being a lifelong experience for him will reinforce your need to control this. If he’s expressed being sad about this or wishing he had friends, you could say something like: “It’s hard to feel like kids don’t want to be with you. It makes you sad. What can you do to get what you want?” If he’s quiet, let him think about it without judging him or pushing him for answers. He may want to share more information, more feelings. If he doesn’t feel judged or blamed, he can feel safe in sharing. As long as he feels heard and understood, he may solve this on his own without sharing anything, or he might feel his struggles are too big to solve on his own. Before giving him any suggestions or guidance, ask him first if he wants to brainstorm with you. He may agree without having any ideas of his own. If so, ask him if he would like you to offer some ideas: “Would you like a suggestion?” It’s so important for us to get our child’s permission before suggesting or recommending something when he’s having a problem, thus communicating respect and acceptance. Some children will push back with a strong “NO!” which we need to honor. Power struggles are easily borne from parents assuming control of solving a problem without regard for the child’s perspective.

You don’t have to agree with how your son is handling the situation, just accept. He can then begin owning his feelings, his behavior and reactions, leading him to problem-solve on how he might make his relationships work better. He can freely focus on what he might need or want to do differently. When you provide answers before his feelings have been acknowledged and accepted, he will feel inadequate. However, when you support what’s at the emotional root of the problem, empathizing with what it’s like to be in his shoes of rejection and low self-esteem, he will feel heard, understood, and better able to embrace what is his problem and responsibility. After making statements to connect to the emotional root of his behavior, you can try some helpful questions when he has a disappointing encounter with friends: “How can you get what you want? If what you’re doing isn’t working, what can you do differently to get what you want? What are you willing to change?”

“Nobody else can live the life you live. And even though no human being is perfect, we always have the chance to bring what’s unique about us to live in a redeeming way.” — Fred Rogers