Q: My normally happy 6-year-old son has recently started incorporating death and war-like games into his imaginative play. He isn’t and has never been a mean-spirited child, but his dad and I just divorced (amicably), and I feel like he’s having trouble dealing with it. For example, he has started telling me he feels stupid. Can you recommend something I can do, or should I have him talk to someone?
A: I would not recommend professional help at this point. First, incorporating war and death into imaginative play is not at all unusual for boys this age and older. In and of itself, this is not cause for concern. Today’s parents have become sensitized to this sort of thing because of highly publicized incidents of child and teen violence, but boys have been playing war games forever whereas boys becoming mass murderers is a recent phenomenon — and almost exclusively an American phenomenon.
On the other hand, if a 6-year-old suddenly becomes truly obsessed with violence (e.g., begins threatening violence toward peers or family or becomes cruel toward pets) I would immediately suspect regular exposure to video games with violent themes. In that case, the obvious solution is to remove the video games from the child’s life. Evidence is mounting that video games with violent themes are contributing to both depression and outbursts of anger in young children.
It’s to be expected that your son will have some degree of difficulty adjusting to a major change of this magnitude in his day-to-day life, but the fact that a youngster is not exactly overjoyed over his parents’ divorce does not mean he’s having a psychological crisis. As for saying he’s stupid, I would tend to take a wait-and-see attitude. There is good likelihood that when he adjusts to the new family circumstances, self-deprecating comments of that sort will fade away.
On the other hand, if you and his father act toward him as if you think he’s a victim, he will begin acting more and more like a victim. Children are intuitively brilliant, and they take advantage of whatever opportunities are handed to them, however unwittingly. Your son may be repeating the “I’m stupid” mantra because you are acting as if it’s to be taken very, very seriously. You respond by talking to him, trying to convince him that he isn’t stupid. So, the next time he’s feeling a little blue and wants attention, he says he’s stupid.
The next time he says this, simply say, “We’ve talked about that enough. If you still think you’re stupid, I’m truly sorry, but we’re not going to talk about it any more. Furthermore, saying that you’re stupid means your brain is over-tired and needs a rest. So from now on, when you say that you’re stupid I’m going to send you to your room to lie down and rest for an hour so you can think straight again.”
Your confidence in your authority is the key to your son’s sense of well-being. If you are convinced that the divorce was in everyone’s best interest, then I strongly advise you to act accordingly.