"Poor Me"

My child has a chronic medical problem which has some negative impact on his daily life. My concern is that he feels overly sorry for himself much of the time, and he uses his condition to manipulate people. How do I move him into a more positive space where he can see all that he can do, rather than all that he can’t do?

Your child does have a genuine medical condition, and he is going to have genuine emotions about it. “Bad” feelings are the psychological equivalent of pain, signals that something is wrong with the person on a psychological level, that some needs are not being met. Children must learn (1) to identify their feelings correctly, (2) to express them appropriately, (3) to identify the unmet needs which give rise to the bad feelings, (4) to control their behavior when they are having strong feelings, and (5) to take appropriate action to meet their needs. It sounds as if you want your son to move directly from step (1) to steps (4) and (5), avoiding the expression of emotions which will enable him to know what he needs. He can’t.

Are you denying your son’s genuine feelings? Negative feelings do not go away when they are denied; they become stronger and more persistent. They go away when they are expressed to an understanding person, and the needs they come from are met. As the parent you need to empathize with your son. Give him a daily “whine time” when he can express his frustration or sadness or grief about his disability. Instead of providing solutions and giving advice, just listen to his feelings. You will be amazed that his need to complain may become less rather than more when he is truly listened to! Once you listen to him, you can help him through the steps above.

For your child to learn to handle his emotions in a healthy manner, you need to set an example. Unfortunately many of us adults were taught as children that bad feelings are not okay. They’re not just okay, they’re basic equipment for survival. What emotions is your son stimulating in you when he feels sorry for himself? Are you angry at him? Look underneath the anger for your other feelings. Are you frustrated, feeling helpless as a parent to do anything about his situation? Are you embarrassed by his behavior with other people? Do you feel guilty, as if you are in some way responsible for his difficulties? Are you grieving for the healthy child you wish you had? It’s okay for you to feel any or all of these things, and even to express your feelings, with tears or loudness and “feeling sorry for yourself,” alone or to a friend. As you go through all five steps, you can get your own needs met. Then you will be better able to empathize with your child, and help him do what you have done.

Your listening is the tool to help your son move through the first three steps of identifying and expressing his emotions and becoming aware of his unmet needs. When this is complete, he will be ready to do the problem-solving represented in the last two steps. If he doesn’t come up with ideas himself, you can help him find things he can do where he’s on an equal footing with others rather than at a disadvantage. You can help him figure out when asking for help is the best thing to do, and when it’s more appropriate to handle something himself and become more independent. A pessimist is one whose glass is half empty; an optimist is one whose glass is half full; you might add a time of thankful awareness of the full half, once he has had his “whine time” about the empty half. Once his emotions are acknowledged, he will be able to move on to problem-solving. If you and his other caregivers neither give in to his manipulations nor deny his feelings, but listening empathically and then help him work things out, he will mature and become independent.

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