Looking for Negative Attention

Q: I have a 9-year-old son who continually looks for negative attention. He is the fourth of seven children, and seems to have a bit of perfectionism about him (both my husband and myself have that issue). He can speak very disrespectfully to me (and recently to his Rebbi), and complain about everything around him. Punishments don’t seem to faze him, though we continue to give him consequences for his bad behavior. He doesn’t usually feel comfortable when complimented, and usually doesn’t feel too comfortable with affection from us. He might give a hug to us on rare occasions, but it’s only on his terms — when he approaches us. (It’s usually not a mutual thing.)

He is weak in his academic abilities, and he is embarrassed about this. His younger sister reads both Hebrew and English much better than he does, and this also causes him to feel inferior in relation to his siblings. We’ve given him remedial help, but even having his siblings hear him practice reading with the tutor can be humiliating to him, with his continual stopping and starting.

He is now being verbally disrespectful towards his Rebbi and was suspended from school last week for refusing to apologize to a classmate. He was out of school for two days last week, until he had the “courage” to clear up his mistakes. I went over the procedure and words that he would have to say in order to get back into the classroom, many times. He barely sees his part in sibling fights, and you can say that talking to him is often like talking “to the wall.” My husband and I don’t know how to get through to him. Any suggestions?

A: It would be very beneficial for your son to go a child psychotherapist to try to see what is causing him such anger and disappointment in life and in himself at such an early age. Though you feel it is connected to his sense of perfectionism (which you say is somewhat inherited), you need to see if any other issues are involved. His sense of not feeling “good enough” seems to be more global in his life. He is “not worthy enough” to receive compliments, and not “lovable enough” to receive affection.

There can be more than one cause for this defensive and somewhat mistrustful response, and it is worthwhile to be sure that no traumatic event in the past or present is the cause. Be it a disparaging Rebbi, or a teasing peer on the school bus, a child’s self-esteem can be continually worn away by such circumstances.

What you and your husband are able to do is to counter his rejection of compliments and affection, by not giving up. You can verbalize indirect compliments. An example of this could be: “You don’t think that I’m so silly, that I didn’t notice how you had so much patience with your brother Moishe? Many people would have just given up, after it took him so long to tie his shoe.” You could even embellish on the compliment, if he thinks you truly mean it, by adding: “Whoever will be your children one day will be very lucky to have you.”

When you want to show affection, you can say: “I know that you sometimes are not in the mood, but how can I stop myself from hugging you — you’re such a special boy…” At that point, giving specific praise about his positive characteristics that you truly admire and concrete examples of when he exhibited these positive character traits will only help him acquire a more positive sense of self.

In relation to chutzpah, the response to negative behavior needs to be a consequence. However, along with this can be an indirect positive expectation of your son. A parent can say: “This is not the Chaim that I know. Just yesterday, I saw that you were being teased by boys on the block, and you really kept your cool. You control what you feel so many times.”

Hatzlachah rabbah in this most essential endeavor.