To help shift your focus away from your child's specific behavior and toward his
interpersonal adjustment, consider the following illustration.
Joe's mother and father are sitting at the dinner table talking after Joe and his
brother, Terry, have eaten and left the kitchen. 'I'm worried about Joe,' his mother says as Mr.
Butler pours his wife another cup of coffee. He sits, waiting until she continues, 'It's hard to put
my finger on it. He just seems to have lost interest in his friends and the things he had seemed to
enjoy. I guess I don't know if he has any friends anymore. He talks on the phone sometimes but I
don't think he does much with anyone. He just stays in his room and does things he can do by
himself. He seemed to be getting along fine. At least, I hadn't noticed anything until lately. I don't
know what happened. I really am concerned.'
Mr. Butler thinks about what his wife said and then says, 'I know what you mean.
It may be even more of a problem than you're saying. I know Terry asked him to shoot some
baskets and he said he was too busy. All he did was watch television. I don't know if you have
noticed it or not but the last few times someone has called him, he's made some excuse not to
talk with them. Have you said anything to him about what you're feeling?'
Mrs. Butler does not know what to say. She finally says, 'I've tried to talk to him.
He says everything's fine and I'm making too much of a deal out of it. He brushes it off and won't
talk about what he's thinking. He just shuts me out. He acts like he doesn't have a care in the
world. I don't know. I'm worried.'
Joe's case is an example of how interpersonal problems can catch parents by surprise. Had
your child never developed good social skills or if he had always had trouble getting along with
people, you would know there is a problem and would likely know why. It would still be
something needing your caring attention but would not be so surprising.
The surprise comes when parents find themselves in the situation in which Joe's parents
found themselves. Things are fine; and then one day you find yourself wondering what is going
on. Things with your child do not seem quite right. It is hard to put your finger on exactly what is
wrong; but you are concerned.
Trust your intuitions. Something has changed and you and your child need to think about
it, talk about it, understand the change. Being familiar with the common signs of relationship
problems will help as you focus on your child's difficulties and try to understand what is
Signs of relationship problems
As you think about these signs of relationship problems, keep in mind that most
youngsters do not have these difficulties on any continuing basis. Young people have better days
and worse days; but on the whole, they are developing satisfactorily and getting along fine
Some kids do have problems with people and relationships, though. For the most part,
these youngsters also are having other difficulties. The most common additional difficulty is a
serious change in the youngster's self-esteem. In fact, it is unusual to see serious, interpersonal
maladjustment in a child who does not have self-esteem difficulties.
This is the point. Something is going on in your child's world that is causing him to have
trouble getting along with people. If he has not always had trouble, something is going on now.
What has changed? What happened at school or somewhere else to cause problems with his
friends? What is not working as well for him as it had been? The cause is there if you can be
patient enough and persistent enough to find it. The likelihood is that the youngster already
knows exactly what changed. The question is whether you can help him feel safe enough to share
it with you.
If you answer Yes to any of the following questions, your child is or is becoming
interpersonally maladjusted. You need to proceed gently but persistently.
The signs that follow are divided into three groups. The first group deals with problems
getting along with other children. The second focuses on difficulties related to low self-esteem;
and the third considers signs of withdrawal and isolation. It is important to consider all three
areas in order to fully explore the types and range of relationship problems children may exhibit.
Does your child;
Try to keep his friends all to himself?
Often get his feelings hurt?
Often become the brunt of teasing and put-downs?
Get up-tight and nervous when someone is angry or upset?
Refuse to stick up for himself?
Try to please everyone and keep everyone happy?
Feel like most people do not like him?
Get rejected or ignored by most people his age?
Worry and fret about not doing things well enough and about failing?
Avoid starting things because he is afraid they will turn out badly anyway?
Give up too quickly and too easily?
Feel unhappy about his physical and sexual development?
Dislike himself or put himself down?
Feel he does not fit in or belong anywhere?
Think no one loves him?
Seem to be losing interest in people and activities he had enjoyed?
Have trouble making and keeping friends?
Avoid people and social activities?
Only like activities he can do alone?
Refuse to talk to anyone about his feelings and thoughts?
Tries to keep his friends all to himself
This sign can be caused by what may be a fact of human nature. It can be caused by
jealousy, not having other friends, and your child's wanting to have what he has all to himself.
Whatever the cause, it is a quick way for him to lose friends.
If your child is getting too possessive, you might say, for example, 'I want to talk with
you about you and your girlfriend. It's just something I learned along the way. Here it is. If you're
too possessive, she might like it at first. After awhile, she'll want to spend time with her other
friends and do stuff when you aren't around. This doesn't mean she doesn't still like you. It just
means there's more to life than one relationship. Here's the problem. It works better not to be so
possessive to begin with. I think if you keep it up, you might push her away. I have a couple of
suggestions if you want to keep her as your girlfriend.' Be careful, though. In all likelihood, the
relationship will not last very long anyway. The risk is making him feel that breaking up was his
fault whether his being too possessive had anything to do with it or not.
Often gets his feelings hurt
This problem is not as simple as it may first seem. It looks like your child is just too
thin-skinned and unable to handle the give-and-take of being ten or thirteen. It is a rough time
and getting his feelings hurt happens easily if he lets it. This is just a fact of life for children, and
for adults too, for that matter. Your encouraging him to be a little tougher is normally good
advice; but the sign may be a symptom of other problems.
Children with learning problems are more likely to get their feelings hurt by teachers and
by other children. It hurts when people call attention to your youngster's not doing well,
especially if he has tried to do well. Children whose self-esteem is already low feel even worse
when things happen that other youngsters would not think much about one way or the other.
Children who have high stress in their lives are much more vulnerable than those who do not.
Handicapped youngsters, children with other physical or emotional problems, and those who are
already self-conscious for some reason get their feelings hurt easily; and just being a child brings
its own vulnerabilities. It really can be complicated for kids.
It is not enough to simply encourage your child to be more thick-skinned. He needs help
with his feelings and with how he thinks about himself. You can help here better than anyone
since you are likely to be present when his feelings are hurting.
At first, take your child's side. You can start by getting a little angry for him about what
happened and with whomever did it to him. He matters; and his feelings matter to you. He needs
you on his side right now. Your advice and guidance can come later.
Often becomes the brunt of teasing and put-downs
This sign of relationship problems is usually caused by a combination of low self-esteem
and poor social skills. Children who have good social skills and high self-esteem can handle the
give-and-take. Usually, they either do not respond to the taunting or have developed ways of
stopping it. Often this means using come-backs that are at least as nasty as the original taunt. You
and other adults may object; but it works.
Telling your child to ignore teasing and put-downs is good advice; but it only works up to
a point and part of the time. Also, this does nothing to stop the assault on your child's
self-esteem. It is normally better for you to stay out of it as much as you can. While you are
staying on the sideline, think about whether your child may be using this problem as a new way
to get your attention. The point is that he needs to learn to deal with his problem by himself.
A little coaching from you may help. He only needs to learn one or two social responses
and use them calmly while looking the taunter straight in the eye. Whatever the taunter says next,
he needs only to hold his ground, keep staring, and keep his mouth closed. If your child feels a
need to say something, he might try, 'Thank you for sharing that with me.' If the taunter keeps it
up, the social puzzle is just that much more challenging. He has to use the response every time
for at least ten or fifteen tries, though. By that time, he has started to be socially pro-active about
The strategy suggested assumes that your child is having his difficulties within a social
context that includes other youngsters who are not exhibiting more serious behavior problems.
This means that your first focus needs to be on with whom your child is having problems. You
might first talk with school officials or others who have first-hand knowledge about the young
people involved. If the youngsters involved are likely to exhibit abnormally extreme reactions to
your child, help your child understand that the taunters have serious behavior problems and that
he should do whatever he can to avoid them. If that is not possible, you should talk with the
people at school about how you should advise your child to handle the taunters' behavior.
Gets up-tight and nervous when anyone is angry or upset
Getting a little up-tight and nervous is normal, especially for a child. Even for adults, the
situation brings some uncertainty. The up-tightness is part of getting ready to deal with whatever
happens. Nonetheless, if your child noticeably reacts like this with regularity, though, it signals a
possible problem. This is especially true if he gets more upset than the person to whom he is
reacting. If he has the reaction when the anger had nothing to do with him, it is a bigger problem.
When he reacts just because he thinks someone might get angry, the problem is even worse.
What is happening? Your child is overreacting. Why? Because he fears something very
bad is about to happen, and probably to him. Children behave like they have learned to behave.
This is especially true for their emotional reactions. Your child is afraid and fears he or someone
else is going to get hurt.
Helping your child with this sign is not complicated but takes a long time. Your child
needs to learn that people get upset and angry at times; but this does not mean that someone is
going to get hurt or that anything bad will happen. Talk with him about his fears. You can say,
'You feel upset. I think you're reacting to someone else's anger and nervousness. It feels like
you're afraid that you or someone else might get hurt. It doesn't work that way in our family.
(You need to be sure that this is true.) We all get angry at times. You can get angry too if
something upsets you. Getting angry is okay. This is the difference. When we get angry, we talk
to each other. Sometimes it gets a little loud; but that's as far as it goes. We don't hurt each other.
You should let me know the next time you get angry about something. That is part of how we
know what everyone in our family is thinking and feeling.'
To again make and emphasize the point, you have to be sure that what you say is true.
You must insist that no one hurts anyone at your house. This includes how the adults relate to
each other, how you handle your anger and frustrations, and how you express your negative or
unpleasant emotions. This again emphasizes the importance of parental modeling and the
example you set for your children and the example your children set for each other.
Refuses to stick up for himself
A child with this problem is well along the way to social isolation. In many ways,
children who are having problems with fighting and getting into fights are getting along better
than the child who just stands there and takes it. In the give-and-take, a child with this sign only
takes. His parents may have taught him to be non-aggressive for religious or moral reasons; but if
so, he will have a proud and self-controlled quality about him. The sign will be there; but it will
not have a negative quality about it. A passive, 'I have to take it,' attitude is more likely. It is a
whipped-puppy kind of thing. The youngster is either afraid to stick up for himself or all the
spunk has been taken out of him. Either way, it is a serious problem.
It is very difficult to help your child with this sign. You can, nonetheless, do two things.
First, you should try to get him to stick up for himself, especially in situations that have adult
supervision. Next, when he does not stick up for himself at home, you should be slow to come to
his aid. Home is a very good place for him to practice.
Here is the hard part for most parents. As your child exhibiting this sign begins to stick up
for himself, he will likely use primitive methods. He may hit, yell, or try other things that are
problematic. If so, you can say, for example, 'You hit your sister. I'm proud of you for sticking
up for yourself. You have the right idea; but hitting isn't your best choice. Next time, try just
yelling at her. I don't know for sure if it'll work better. It's just something to think about.'
Tries to please everyone and keep everyone happy
This is a disguised version of a child's not sticking up for himself. As you think about it,
you will see what motivates your child. On the surface, he wants approval, positive feedback, and
to be seen as a helpful person who causes no trouble. The last part is the key. His main
motivation is to cause no trouble. He wants to keep everyone from getting upset or angry,
especially with him.
Instead of seeing the sign as the problem it is, many parents tend to see the behavior as
positive, cooperative, and desirable; and in some ways, it is. The important question is how much
and how often you see the behavior.
Trying to please everyone and keep everyone happy is likely the most common cause of
tension and stress adults have. Think about yourself. How much of your stress is because of
trying to meet everyone's needs and trying to keep everyone happy? You likely know it is
unreasonable but may try to do it anyway. You at least have an opportunity not to pass the
behavior on to your child.
This point needs your considered attention. Children learn what they are taught. Not
pleasing adults or not keeping them happy may have lead to very bad things happening to the
child. It may have been his only hope for protecting himself. Even if there was no real threat,
there may have been an alcoholic or mentally ill family member for whom he felt responsible.
The family law said, 'Do whatever you have to do to avoid upsetting anyone. Keeping people
happy is your job. If anyone gets upset, drinks, or gets mentally ill again, it's your fault.' Guilt,
especially irrational guilt, is powerful.
If none of the above conditions are present, discourage your child from always doing
things for people. You can be slower to let him help and tell him that it is not his job to keep
people happy. In fact, he cannot make people happy and would be better off were he a little more
selfish and self-centered.
Feels like most people do not like him
Most children feel like this sometimes; and some feel this way most of the time. They
really believe that most people do not like them. These feelings and ideas develop in children out
of low self-esteem, bad life-experiences, poor social skills, and a life with way too much stress.
Focus on your having a positive relationship with your child, understanding that this helps a lot
by itself. This truth not withstanding, you can do more to help your child with his relationship
You should start by believing him. You might say, 'Okay, most people don't like you. I'm
not one of those who doesn't like you; but most people are. If it's true, it must have something to
do with how you act, how you look, or how you treat them. You must be turning them off. If we
can figure out how you're doing that, we also can figure out how you can stop doing that. It's hard
for me to see how you turn almost everyone off. That may be because I love you; but here's a
place for us to start. How do they let you know that they don't like you? That'll be a place for us
to begin thinking about what you might do about the problem.'
Is rejected or ignored by most people his age
This is the same as the last sign, except it is actually true: most people dislike the child. It
is even worse if he does not understand that they do not like him.
Start by being honest with yourself and with your child. Your helping him starts with
determining why he is so disliked. Since you are unlikely to have enough objectivity to see what
others see, you might start by asking your child's teachers, other parents who you think would be
candid with you or other adults who interact with your child. Also, you should not overlook the
obvious. Other children have likely told your child why he is disliked. If you are patient,
sensitive, and listen carefully, you will normally be able to learn the facts of it by asking him.
With that information, you and he can work on changing or compensating for those
characteristics that others find objectionable.
Worries and frets about not doing things well enough and about failing
You may see this sign in relation to school and school work. Children get nervous and
upset about tests, homework, and sometimes about going to school. The problem is that they
think they will fail even when there is no reason for them to worry. They do not do their
homework, will not participate in class, and do not risk failure. Sometimes a child with
self-esteem problems will do his homework but not turn it in. The risk of teachers and parents
getting upset is not as bad as failing.
This type of self-esteem problem also may be seen in other areas. The young person
worries and frets about not looking good enough and may even think he looks weird. He may
avoid other children because he is afraid of being embarrassed. He thinks he will fail socially or
may think that he already is a social failure. New people and activities are always a problem
because he does not know what new ways there might be to embarrass himself or to fail. He
thinks that almost anything or anyone may be a new chance for him to be rejected.
What is going on with your child? It is one of those things that is so obvious that you can
completely overlook it. Yes, it has to do with how the youngster thinks about and feels about
himself. More importantly, though, it has to do with how he thinks others feel about him, how he
thinks they will react to him. Children with low self-esteem believe that people do not like them
and that they will never be accepted.
Is a child with low self-esteem worrying and fretting about not doing well and about
failing? Yes; but more to the point, he worries more about ridicule, rejection, and angry
reactions. If this were not bad enough, he knows it would be still worse to just be ignored.
A couple of things will be helpful. Problems with low self-esteem are very stressful for
children. For example, worrying and fretting once in a while about failing is not all that
significant. All children do this sometimes. Still, some kids often feel like this; and for them,
their stress is severe. If you frequently see this behavior in your child, you need to be alert to
signs of stress and look for times when you can back off a little and reduce the pressure on him to
work harder or do more.
When your child is working on something or thinking about doing something, be sure you
resist the temptation to say things to him like, 'Don't worry. You'll do fine. You're getting upset
over nothing.' This only says to him that you do not understand how upset and afraid he really is.
It would be better for you to say, 'I'm proud of you for taking a chance on yourself. I
think it will work out fine but don't know for sure. I just want you to know I'm here for you no
matter how it turns out. Your being willing to try or at least thinking about it tells me you are my
kind of person.'
Your goal is to find within yourself enough patience and sensitivity to first try
understanding and then supporting your child's struggle. Your support needs to be there for him
however it turns out. He is important to you; and knowing that he belongs and is accepted by you
boosts his self-esteem all by itself.
When your child does take a chance and try, actively acknowledge the good points about
what he does. At the same time, you must not be dishonest. You should not say that he did well
when it is not true, tell him things are going fine when they are not, or try to convince him that
people like him when they do not. Most importantly, you must resist the natural temptation to tell
him that it does not matter because it does matter. You and he both know it matters a lot.
This is the question you may need to answer. Do you have enough respect and caring for
your child to be honest? For him to know you do is a very positive and loving thing. Within the
love and honesty of your relationship, you can authenticly encourage him, support him, give him
ideas about how he can succeed, and be there for him when things go sour.
Resists starting things because he is afraid they will turn out badly anyway
Worrying and fretting is where low self-esteem starts. Just shutting down is where it
leads. This is the first hurdle to get over. Children whose self-esteem is so low they will not even
try are misunderstood and often dealt with in harsh and destructive ways. Adults may see them as
bull-headed, oppositional, and defiant. The child's self-esteem problem looks to them like a
behavior problem. From that perspective, they can quickly become frustrated, angry, and down
on the child. It is a vicious circle. The child does not try to do things because he believes he will
fail anyway. He thinks he will get bad reactions from people no matter how he does. Adults see
his behavior as willful and defiant. They get upset and angry with him which is what he thought
they were going to do. It makes no difference. Bad reactions and rejection come anyway. From
the child's point of view, he is simply someone to whom others react badly; and he does not have
to do anything to get the bad reactions. As the saying goes, 'Damned if he does and damned if he
doesn't;' so why should he bother?
Interpret your child's behavior in literal terms. He does not start projects or try new things,
makes no effort to participate, and always has excuses such as 'I forgot.'
Managing this behavior is difficult; but nonetheless, use this approach. Your first goal is
to get your child to start or at least try, not to get him to finish or do well. Any effort he makes is
a very big step in the right direction. Trying one problem, at least going to the activity, or making
a little effort to do what you expect is progress.
You must not get angry or frustrated with him; for if you do, you would have done better
by doing nothing. The same holds for threatening and pleading with him. A better approach is to
offer him something he wants if he will just start and at least try. This might be a small privilege,
a special treat, time doing something fun with you, or anything else he values.
Gives up too quickly and too easily
A child with low self-esteem worries and frets about failing. He starts giving up quicker
and easier. Finally, he just does not try. When your child is giving up too quickly and too easily,
he is on his way to shutting down, although occasionally, giving up quickly is the last step and
comes after not starting or trying.
Here is how it works. Fretting and worrying changed to giving up quickly and easily.
Criticism and angry reactions from adults or peers caused the youngster to give up. At some
point, he just quit.
The child asked himself, 'What can I do?' This was his answer. 'Just go through the
motions. Act like I'm trying. Stop as soon as they get off my back.' The child is not trying to
succeed; he is only trying to keep things from getting worse. He does not want to be put down
Your child needs to know that you love him for who he is and not for how well he does.
You accept him on an as-is basis. You should respond positively anytime he makes an effort of
any kind to please, especially when he is trying to please you.
Persistently feels very unhappy about his physical and sexual development
Low self-esteem starts with worrying and fretting about failing. It grows into giving up
quickly. This leads to shutting down and not trying. If parental or other adult reactions are too
harsh, the child goes through the motions for fear of even harsher consequences. He simply plays
the game. This is a very sad way for him to think and feel about success, achievement, and
interpersonal participation. Nonetheless, low self-esteem can get still worse for him.
The youngster feels incompetent and may have a low physical/sexual self-image as well.
Most children have some uncertainty about themselves physically and sexually; but children with
self-esteem problems have these thoughts persistently and feel them strongly. They think they
cannot succeed, cannot achieve, and that they will not be accepted socially. They also may think
that they are not made right or well enough.
This poor self-image has nothing to do with how the young person actually looks or is
developing. The child believes it, no matter what the facts are or what other people tell him.
Resist trying to convince him that his perceptions and feelings are wrong. That will only
strengthen his belief that you do not understand. You can say, 'I feel badly you think about
yourself in such negative ways. You're a normal person and are fine physically and sexually. I
know you doubt that even though it is true. I want to hear what you think and feel about it; but
I'm not going to argue. You have a right to your feelings. Will you tell me how it feels to you?'
Dislikes himself or puts himself down
This sign makes a child's physical and sexual doubt easier to understand. It also makes it
easier to see the connection between low self-esteem and relationship problems. Children believe
they are who parents and other people have told them they are. The messages may have come
directly from a parent or perhaps from teachers or peers. Wherever they came from, it was a part
of your child's world that did not value and support him.
It is as if he steps back, watches himself, and hears people saying to him, 'You aren't
someone I like. You aren't my kind of person. There're a lot of things I don't like about you; and
I'm here to point them out to you, every chance I get.' The youngster learned about himself by
having to live through what others said to him and about him to others. He painfully saw how
they saw him and how they treated him.
There is no way you can directly help with this kind of self-hatred. Saying, 'I love you,'
is worth saying but does not help much. Mostly, it makes your child think that you are as dumb
as he feels. You are just someone else who lies to him.
Instead, your child needs you to actively value and care. He needs that relationship to be
certain, secure, and authentic. Though it may be difficult for you, try to focus your thinking on
the relationship itself and away from behavior and specific events. The quality of your
relationship with your child is the heart of the message he needs from you. It needs to
consistently say, 'You're someone worth my hanging in there with. I'm part of you as you are of
me. We go together. However steep the hill and no matter how long it takes, we'll climb it
In the short-term, listen for a couple days and make note of the bad things he says about
himself. Find a quiet time to talk with him about your list. If possible and if both of his parents
are available, you should talk with him together since he needs to know that you both care and
are together with him on this. You can say, 'For the last two days, we've made a note every time
we heard you put yourself down. Here's the list of things you've said about yourself.' You should
then quietly read the list to him and wait for a minute to see if he says anything.
Next, you can say, 'We don't see you like that. These things don't seem like you to us.
We'd like to get you to help us understand. If it's okay with you, we'll read these to you one at a
time. We'd like for you to tell us why you think these things are true about you. You may want to
give us an example or just explain it to us. The first thing on the list is, 'I just mess everything
up.' Why do you believe that is true? Will you give us an example?'
This is critical. You must not argue with him, must not try to convince him that he is
wrong. You should simply ask questions and listen. That by itself lets him know that you care
and value what he has to say. Once you have listened to what he feels about each put-down, you
can say, 'Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with us. We understand how you see
yourself a lot better. We don't see you in those ways at all but appreciate your being willing to
help us understand.'
The conversation helped your youngster's self-esteem all by itself. Also, you now have
many new opportunities. Suppose your family goes to church and then to visit with some friends;
and things go fine. Later that night, you can make a point to talk with your child. You might say,
'Remember when you said you mess everything up? Well, today was an example of why we
don't agree. Today was a very good day. Everything went fine. It was good to have you with us.
You didn't mess anything up. That makes us think you're not someone who messes everything
up. We just want you to know why we think what we think.' Your child likely will not say
anything. You have made your self-esteem point nonetheless.
Feels he does not fit in or belong anywhere
This is the underlying problem causing your child's low self-esteem. He feels like he does
not fit in, does not belong. This goes against what may be the most human of human needs: the
need to belong. Children are who others tell them they are; and youngsters with very low
self-esteem have heard their world telling them that they do not belong anywhere. They think
they do not fit in, do not belong. As sad as it is, they are partly right. Whether it is at home or
somewhere else, to some extent they do not fit in or belong in what is to them an important part
of their world.
This makes helping your child with his self-esteem problems doubly difficult. You need
to help him with his ideas about himself that are not true as well as with those that are true.
For example, your child says, 'I don't belong anywhere. No one cares about me.' Say,
'You belong here and I care about you; but you think that is not true. I don't understand why you
feel that way. That doesn't help you much right now. I feel badly for you but am not going to tell
you how to feel or what to think. I'm here for you and hope that helps at least a little. I hope you
will hang in there with me and keep trying to help me understand why you don't feel like you
belong and why you don't think I care.' The idea is to actively value and respect your child
enough to deal with the truth, with how he really feels.
Thinks no one loves him
This sign is one step down the self-esteem ladder from perceptions of not fitting in and
not belonging. It is almost all the way to the bottom.
There are a couple of points to consider. Most children and most adults for that matter
sometimes feel unloved and unappreciated; and many feel a little like this much of the time.
Their feelings may be about low self-esteem; but they are more likely because of some atypical
circumstance. When feeling unloved is a sign of damaged self-esteem, it is much more constant,
much more severe, and very painful.
Your child says, 'No one loves me. No one cares.' You likely are tempted to say, 'I love
you. I care.' It is important for you to then go on to say, 'Not feeling loved is a hard feeling to
handle. I can tell it feels awful and hurts a lot. It seems like you feel angry and afraid and other
confusing stuff at the same time. Not thinking anyone cares would feel really lonely. How does it
feel to you?' At least your child now knows that you care enough to care about how he feels.
That is a start.
I love you's are cheap; but when you are gentle and honest, your child learns that he
matters enough to be listened to. This is a small bit of self-esteem, a moment when the most
important person in his life respects him enough to deal with him openly and honestly.
This is the bottom of the self-esteem ladder. The child has totally devalued himself and
sees himself as a zero. He has given up.
Think about how the child's loss of self-esteem progressed. It went from worrying and
fretting to giving up too easily, from not trying to self-hatred. The child now is at the end of the
line. From his point of view, he has no value, is not someone anyone loves. Why? Because he is
simply not lovable. People may say that they care and may even pretend to love him; but it is not
possible for anyone to love him. He is not someone anyone should love. When a child's
self-esteem has been this permanently destroyed, the child has a lifelong disability. It is
something from which he can never fully recover.
Your best strategy is to be sure to take full advantage of any opportunity you may have to
actively value him, support him, and increase his sense of belonging and attachment to you and
to other positive people who care.
Each gentle touch makes life slightly less bad for him.
Each quiet moment gives him a small taste of belonging.
Each time you listen says he matters a little.
Each time you are sensitive and patient, he is a little less handicapped.
Losing interest in most people and activities
This is a sign of withdrawal. Think about this sign carefully and do not be too quick to
think there is a problem. Your child may lose interest in some people and some activities but this
usually has nothing to do with withdrawal. Perhaps he became bored or simply got interested in
other things. This sign is more than simply changing his interests.
Watch to see if the people and activities in which he is losing interest are being replaced
by other people and activities. If so, a problem is unlikely. If not, your child may be withdrawing.
Talk with him about what you have noticed. You can say, 'I've been noticing you're withdrawing
from people and activities. It isn't just changing interests. For example, (Give some examples.)
you stay by yourself and don't seem interested in much. Will you help me understand what's
He may tell you that he is into his school work and does not have time for activities. If so,
you should say, 'School work is okay but a steady diet of it is too much. I think there is more
happening. Talk to me about what happened with your friends and with the activities you had
enjoyed.' If you are patient and give it a little time, he will likely tell you what happened in his
world to cause things to go sour.
Trouble making and keeping friends
Some children are more likely to exhibit this sign of relationship problems than others.
For example, if a child has changed neighborhoods and schools, difficulty making and keeping
friends is more likely; or if his life-experiences have not taught him good interpersonal and
relationship skills, having the problem is nearly inevitable. A child who has low self-esteem and
deals less well with the give-and-take of friends and the social scene will have this problem to
Most children move out from a solid base at home into other relationships, enabling them
to try many relationships while always having those at home. Children who do not have this solid
base will certainly have this problem. Because of this, relationships they do find are more
important to them. For example, they can easily become too possessive and smother the other
person; or they may try too hard to please and to be part of the group, making them very
vulnerable to mistreatment and exploitation.
Your child needs to be taught about friends and relationships. Approach your teaching
task like this:
'Getting a friend starts by hanging around with people who are like you want to be. Pick
people who seem to value what you value. Next, talk and join in without being pushy. After a
while, you'll notice you talk more with some of them than others. There'll be two or three you
talk with the most. You and they are becoming friends. There're also some ways to keep friends
and ways that turn them off. We can talk about that as time goes on.' By talking to him like this,
you are modeling an example of friendly behavior and are teaching him relationship skills. It is a
slow but rewarding process.
Be sure you also make a point to include him in family activities at church, in the
neighborhood, or in community organizations. This gives him a chance to see other healthy
families and to make friends. Although child-only activities may be too stressful for him at first,
family activities are safe and provide you good opportunities to observe, coach, and support him.
Avoids people and social activities
This is a sign that your child has withdrawn. You could easily miss it because your child
may be very friendly with you, with other family members, and especially with adults. You think,
'But everyone likes him.' The problem is that 'everyone' includes few if any young people his
If your child has really withdrawn from everyone, he needs immediate psychiatric help.
Something drastic is happening. If the withdrawal is from other children and activities away from
home, it is serious but not so much of an emergency. He still has you and others in his family.
Try two things. First, talk with him about what is going on. He may tell you what is
happening and what he thinks and feels. This will give you clues about how to help. Next, you
need to back off a little from being his best friend. You are the only mother (or father) he has.
That is your job. If you are his main friend, it keeps him from needing to find other friends.
Facilitate his spending more time around young people his age. You may need to push
and insist a little. The best technique is to stay close but give him room to be with other children.
Only likes activities he can do alone
This can be near the end of the withdrawal road. This sign also may be seen in a child
who never developed satisfying relationships with people. These children have their most
significant relationships with things and may be known as book-worms or, these days, computer
nuts. Their only interest might be music, reading, television, or anything else where they do not
have to deal with people.
Being clear about your goal is the key to helping your child. Your goal is not to get him to
where he prefers people to his books and computers but rather only to get him to be a little more
As with most signs of maladjustment, helping starts with your relationship with your
child. Show more interest in what he has read, in what he has learned to make his computer do,
or in what he is watching on television. When he responds a little to your interest, you should
feel good about his progress. It will additionally help to encourage him to tell others about his
If you try increasing the time he spends with other children, be sure you do not make what
is a very common mistake. People often try to match a withdrawn child with one who is
unusually outgoing. A better match would be with a child who is almost as quiet and reserved as
the withdrawn youngster. No, they will not bore each other to death. They also will not
overwhelm each other.
Refuses to talk to anyone about his feelings and thoughts
Typically, the presence of this sign is because your child feels like no one listens or seems
to care about what he thinks and feels. Even worse, those who act like they cared do nothing but
tell him what he should think and how he should feel. He tried telling them what he thought.
They said things like, 'You don't really believe that do you?' 'That's a stupid thing to think.'
'You shouldn't feel that way.'
Does he see things this way at home? Asking him is a place to start. When you ask him,
you need to be sure that you are ready for the answer. Your getting upset or telling him he is
wrong will only prove to him that he is not wrong.
Ask him questions about day-to-day things and show him that you are interested in him,
what he thinks, and how he feels.
Do not push him to talk. His relationship with you should be on his terms. You can talk to
him about day-to-day kinds of things but should not expect him to respond. You are there and
interested and accept the reality that he will talk to you when he wants to talk. In the meantime,
you can offer to play games and do things where he does not need to talk.