My 11-year-old son cries all the time about a past event

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Family - John Sharry is founder of the Par­ents Plus Char­ity and an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at the UCD School of Psy­chol­ogy. John Sharry Send your queries to [email protected]­times.com

QMy 11-year-old son had some prob­lems with a boy in his class two years ago. The boy sub­se­quently left the school (this was un­re­lated to what was hap­pen­ing be­tween him and my son). We as­sumed the is­sues were re­solved, but my son feels guilty now at how he han­dled the sit­u­a­tion.

Now at age 11 (al­most 12), he has re­alised that you don’t greet con­flict with con­flict, and he cries all the time about how mean he was and how he should not have re­tal­i­ated to this boy’s taunts. He wor­ries that he might be viewed as a bully.

I have tried to help him and the school have re­as­sured him, but he can’t get past this and spends a lot of time cry­ing say­ing he hates him­self for it. He was al­ways a very laid-back child, this is all new to me.

AWhile a lit­tle bit of guilt can be a good thing in help­ing some­one to take re­spon­si­bil­ity and learn from their ac­tions, ex­ces­sive guilt about past ac­tions can be dam­ag­ing.

Such guilt can take a hold of a per­son and be hard to move on from. Your son’s age is sig­nif­i­cant in that at 11 years old he is now able to think in a com­plex way about moral­ity and re­spon­si­bil­ity but un­for­tu­nately this is lead­ing him to ru­mi­nate about past events that he has now no con­trol over.

Ex­plore in more de­tail what hap­pened

As re­as­sur­ance has not worked (by you or the school), it might be help­ful to draw your son out a bit more.

Probe a lit­tle deeper and ask him to ex­plain ex­actly what hap­pened and why he feels guilty. Per­haps there is some as­pect of the con­flict that he has not told you or per­haps there are some spe­cific de­tail that par­tic­u­larly up­set him.

Lis­ten to what­ever he says in a non-judg­men­tal way – the key is for him to ex­press him­self and to get what­ever is on his mind off his chest.

Pin­point and chal­lenge the think­ing that un­der­pins his guilt

Try to pin­point your son’s think­ing about what has hap­pened – “so you think that be­cause you did, you are some­how re­spon­si­ble”.

Pin­point­ing the thoughts that un­der­pin your son’s guilt can help him dis­tance him­self from these thoughts and be­gin to ex­am­ine them crit­i­cally.

Rather than sim­ply dis­miss­ing your son’s guilty thoughts, use ques­tions to en­cour­age him to chal­lenge them him­self. Is this a fair way to look at things? Would not a lot of nine-year-olds have be­haved that way? When you say you “hate your­self” for what hap­pened, do you not think you are be­ing a bit harsh on your­self? Is it fair to do this two years later?

Praise his good in­ten­tions

Praise your son’s good in­ten­tions and the strengths that he is show­ing in his guilt. For ex­am­ple, you might say to him, “It strikes me you are a very sen­si­tive child who tries to un­der­stand other peo­ple’s feel­ings. You are also a very moral per­son who wants to do the right thing. I like that about you.”

Then you can en­cour­age him to ex­press these good in­ten­tions to­wards him­self. For ex­am­ple you might con­tinue, “But in this sit­u­a­tion I think you are be­ing too hard on your­self.

“I wish you would be more sen­si­tive to your own feel­ings and be kinder to your­self in this in­stance. I think you should do the right thing for your­self”. En­cour­age for­give­ness Maybe there is some as­pect of what hap­pened that he feels re­spon­si­ble for, and this might need to be ac­knowl­edged. But then ask him but how can he for­give him­self and move on. In­deed, for­give­ness is the an­ti­dote to ex­ces­sive guilt.

Try to en­cour­age his self-com­pas­sion by ask­ing him to view his sit­u­a­tion through the eyes of a friend. “What would you say to a friend who was feel­ing guilty like you? How would you en­cour­age them to move on?”

There may be a spe­cific rit­ual that might help him move on such as writ­ing his thoughts out in a jour­nal or in the form of a story or even as a piece of art.

Help your son chal­lenge his ru­mi­nat­ing thoughts While you can be at times em­pathic to how he is feel­ing, at other times it is im­por­tant to en­cour­age him to dis­tract him­self and to move on.

If you no­tice him cry­ing or ru­mi­nat­ing, while you might ac­knowl­edge what he is feel­ing, you might also sug­gest to put these thoughts to one side and do some­thing else. Get his agree­ment in ad­vance about in­ter­rupt­ing ex­ces­sive ru­mi­na­tion and worry. For ex­am­ple, you might agree dif­fer­ent dis­trac­tion strate­gies he might use when this hap­pens.

Fi­nally, it is a case of be­ing very pa­tient and giv­ing him time to move on. Con­tinue to en­cour­age him to get on with daily life and to do all the ac­tiv­i­ties he en­joys and to spend time with friends.

If he con­tin­ues to ob­sess and ru­mi­nate you could also con­sider con­tact­ing a pro­fes­sional who should be able to ad­vice fur­ther.

Probe a lit­tle deeper and ask him to ex­plain ex­actly what hap­pened and why he feels guilty

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ISTOCK

My son wor­ries that he might be viewed as a bully.

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