‘My son worries he might be viewed as a bully’
Ask the expert: ‘The incidents happened two years ago, but he can’t get past them’
“My son cries all the time about how mean he was and how he should not have retaliated to this boy’s taunts.” Photograph: iStock
Question: My 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. Can you address this in your article?
Answer: While 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 I think 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”.
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.
John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He will deliver a number of parenting workshops on “Helping Children Overcome Anxiety” in Dublin and Cork in January, 2019. See solutiontalk.ie for details