Decoding Your Child's Dramatic Declarations
"My teacher hates me!"
Your child may have lots of skills left to develop, but chances are there's one she mastered early: melodrama. While many of her pronouncements could convince you there's an Oscar nod in her future, they also leave you stumped. Could your child have a serious problem? Or is her imagination working overtime? It might be either, but the truth is probably somewhere in between, says Jennifer Hartstein, PsyD, a child psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center, in the Bronx. "Often, kids make black-and-white statements because they aren't mature enough to articulate their real feelings -- leaving you to play detective." Here, six soap-opera-worthy statements kids love, what they mean, and how to deal with the real problem.
"My teacher hates me!"
What he might mean: Embarrassment is usually behind this claim. Maybe your child failed a test, froze during a presentation, or couldn't understand his homework. Or he might be ashamed that his teacher punished him for talking in class.
How to handle it: Listen to your child's side of the story, then ask specific questions: Why do you think your teacher hates you? What did she say? What happened right before she said it? Has she ever said that before? Don't argue the "hate" issue, says Michael Bradley, EdD, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia. "Parents make the mistake of saying, 'Your teacher couldn't possibly hate you -- everyone loves you!' But this silences your child and prevents him from seeing the real issue."
If the drama turns out to be a problem with behavior -- your child was disciplined for hitting someone at recess -- help him understand his teacher is correct to step in ("Wouldn't you want your teacher to do something if somebody hit you?"). And if he thinks his teacher "hates" him because she's pushing him to work harder, explain that it's his teacher's job to help him do well in class.
Keep in mind: If your child continues to complain about his teacher, you may be dealing with more than an isolated problem, so call the teacher to schedule a meeting.
"I don't have any friends."
What she might mean: Your child may simply be having a bad day. It's similar to your coming home from the office and saying, "Work sucks." It's probably not true, but it's an honest feeling. Often, this complaint stems from a single slight -- maybe your child wasn't included in a group or invited to a party.
How to handle it: Avoid playing mediator. "That prevents kids from learning to solve their own problems," Dr. Hartstein says. Ask what happened, then help her brainstorm solutions, such as inventing her own games and inviting others to join her. If she's excluded from a party, there could be a good reason -- and handling disappointment is an important (if painful) life lesson. Explain that not everyone is asked to every party -- sometimes people have to keep their invitation list short.
Keep in mind: If your child is truly never included, help her socialize more by setting up playdates. And if she's actually being bullied, report it to the teacher if her tactics (walking away, asking the bullies to leave her alone) don't work.
"I have nothing to play with."
What he might mean: Obviously, he's got plenty of toys, but there's a good chance your child -- like many kids -- isn't a pro at entertaining himself, Dr. Bradley says. "Kids today have a lot of structured time, with playdates and lessons." Left to their own devices, they may be at a loss.
How to handle it: Offer suggestions. "You could build a tower with your Legos or put together a puzzle." Leave the decision up to him, and don't drop everything to play with him, which only rewards complaining. If he keeps whining, encourage him to get involved in an activity by telling him he has to play alone for at least 20 minutes, then see whether he's still bored, Dr. Hartstein suggests. Just don't let him flip on the TV.
"Relying on technology is part of the reason kids have trouble thinking of something to do on their own," Dr. Bradley says.
Keep in mind: Be honest. Did you have one eye on a Seinfeld repeat the last time you played with your child? "I'm bored" can, in some cases, be a valid cry for your attention. "That doesn't mean you have to get down on the floor with him for hours," Dr. Bradley says. "But when you're with your child, give him your undivided attention."
"I can't do this -- it's too hard."
What she might mean: Most children are naturally a little worried when they start a new activity, and they can't articulate their anxiety or fear of failure. "A young child might say 'I can't' because she doesn't have the ability to say 'I'm afraid of failing,'" Dr. Hartstein explains.
How to handle it: Your job is to encourage without pushing. Don't tell her that she's good at everything and can't fail -- we all mess up sometimes, especially when we're learning something new. Instead, point out that even champions didn't start out that way. Everyone has to work at a new activity, and sometimes it's hard. Share a funny story about one of your first attempts -- remember when Mom tried that yoga video and knocked over the lamp?
Keep in mind: If it's not a new activity, your child may be suffering from performance anxiety. If that's the case, try -- gently -- to poke holes in her logic. If she says, "I won't play the piano because I'm going to forget the piece," ask her, "Have you ever forgotten it before? No? Then what makes you think you will now?" Sometimes, just working through the scenario out loud makes it seem less scary.
"My stomach hurts."
What he might mean: As you'd expect, if it's the night before a soccer game or a spelling test, your child might be faking illness instead of admitting he's scared. Another possibility: If tomorrow is game day, he may not want to play the sport anymore, but he's afraid of disappointing you by quitting.
How to handle it: Don't automatically assume that a stomachache is imaginary. "Younger kids have a hard time separating emotional and physical symptoms, so being nervous might feel like a stomachache," Dr. Bradley explains. Instead, say, "Gee, that must be tough. Does it hurt anywhere else?" This validates his feelings and encourages him to open up.
If it's a sport that's making your child "sick," don't give him an easy out by letting him quit too quickly. Agree to take it game by game. If a suspicious stomachache pops up the night before a big test, boost your child's confidence by helping him go over the material he needs to know. But if the mystery ailments happen before every exam, check in with his teacher; maybe your child isn't doing well and is afraid to tell you.
Keep in mind: Is your child overscheduled? Maybe you enrolled him in art class and soccer because he loves both activities, but the time commitment has become too much for him -- and now he's looking for a way out.
"I hate you!"
What she might mean: Something's just happened that made her fume, such as being disciplined for hitting her brother. But because young kids can't easily identify strong emotions, an "I hate you" could be a heat-of-the-moment stand-in for everything from "I feel bad for what I did" to "I'm mad that I won't get to watch TV tonight."
How to handle it: The best advice? Don't throw a tantrum of your own. Yes, you're furious and hurt by "I hate you," but your child is probably even more horrified that she said it. "Strong emotions are very frightening for a child," Dr. Hartstein says. Plus, your getting angry only shows her how easy it is to push your buttons. Say, "I'm sorry you feel that way, but you still shouldn't have hit Tom. And I love you."
Keep in mind: As crazy as it sounds, you should be glad that you've heard those words. "If you want an honest relationship with your child, then she will hate you sometimes," Dr. Bradley says. "If she feels secure enough to say that and sees that you stay calm, she'll also feel secure enough to say she loves you."