The Unhappy Child

Q: My 11-year-old son has lately been very anxious and unhappy. He is not doing well in school and claims that he is just stupid (which is not true). We are working with him and studying with him, yet he is still restless. We spoke to him and tried to get to the bottom of it but were not successful. He has been seeing a counselor for anger issues for the past year, and we have seen some progress, but we stopped sending him as there was no further improvement. My son is a very closed person who has a hard time expressing himself. I am very worried about him.

Please help.

A: The possible reasons for a child’s unhappiness are many and varied and beyond the scope of this column.

In your son’s case, perhaps anger management counseling was initially a helpful idea, but as it has not changed his general attitude and behavior, other steps need to be taken.

If your son has difficulty expressing his thoughts and emotions to others and has not shared them with you, you should seek a competent mental health clinician to work with him. You can mention to your son that it pains you greatly to see him so unhappy, and that you want to try something different to help him.

Most therapists engage children this age by playing board games with them and not by being confrontative (a method which may differ from therapeutic approaches used with adults). Some therapists read stories with children (this is termed “bibliotherapy”), which discuss themes that possibly reflect the child’s present emotional reality. The story can deal with issues of depression or anxiety, or general problematic socialization issues.

A skilled therapist can sometimes exhibit directed “self-disclosure” by speaking of a time when he or she experienced similar problematic responses in his or her life, similar to what this child is presently experiencing. This concept has been coined “mutual storytelling.” The therapist first tells his or her story, hoping to elicit a reaction from the child. The reaction might be, “Yes, I feel that way sometimes,” an annoyed “That’s not me!” — or even a blank stare. However the child reacts, he or she will still feel the compassion of an individual reaching out, which can be therapeutic in itself.

Some parents can attempt this “mutual storytelling” approach, but its success may be limited. The possibility of an open response generally depends on the child’s relationship with the parent. As children often possess ambivalent feelings towards their parents, the level of trust needed to reveal negative feelings can be limited. “What if my father knows that I really think/feel this way about this? He will never trust me with …,” or, “If my mother knows that I want/don’t want to be/do… she’ll be so unhappy. I can’t tell her.”

Your son’s self-esteem seems to be suffering, as he is continually asking for your reassurance as to his abilities. Someone who comments on how he is “stupid” is crying out to be validated as a person. Working on self-esteem techniques with a depressed person can sometimes come across as spouting empty words. He has a reason he feels unhappy. A parent’s superficial platitudes can be irritating.

A helpful response (besides getting professional help) would be to say: “I can see that you have something on your mind that is upsetting you. Please feel free to speak to Tatty or me about it — we’d be happy to share ideas with you.” The possibility of opening lines of communication should be verbalized and not be taken for granted.

The need for daily exercise is essential for everyone — especially for those who suffer from depression. Studies show that the effects of daily exercise are similar to those of anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication use. Besides exploring the cause of his behavior (which is most essential), finding ways to improve your son’s present biochemical responses to life is life-enhancing and can most likely help produce an improvement in his general overall attitude.