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Smallest in Class Lacks Self-Esteem

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: My son (10) is small for his age, and seems to have difficulty with his self-esteem. He has always been the smallest in his class, and has been teased by the other children. He seems to crave popularity. I am very concerned for him. My husband and I have told him that his father was also the smallest in school, and that when he went away to college he continued to grow, and now his dad is six feet tall. We have also talked to an endocrinologist, and she has assured us that he will probably be as tall as his father, but that doesn't seem to assure my son. Is there any way we can make him feel better about his size, without making him feel that there's something wrong with being smaller? He's a wonderful boy, and we hate to see him struggling like he is because he wants to be taller

A: I can fully empathize with you and your boy, since being small appears to be even more of a problem for young boys these days than it was when you and I were young. I have treated many boys your son's age who have been, in one boy's words, "too small for too long". Young boys have increasingly joined the ranks of young girls in their obsessive preoccupation with their bodies' size and shape.

As reassuring as his dad's story of eventual height might be, it doesn't do anything for him NOW and NOW is the time your boy lives in. I taught 10 and 11 year-olds in fourth grade; this is a stage where boys voices can begin to change, they can shoot up in height, some can even begin to get a peach fuzz mustache. It's a time that begins to introduce the astonishing pre-puberty explosion of hormones. It's also a tough social time because a 10 year old doesn't want to be considered a little kid, but he's not capable of being accepted as one of the "older guys" (sixth-graders). It's really a time of being caught "in between".

You cannot accelerate your boy's growth unless you resort to growth hormone. I do know of several families who did go this route with their sons after bone age scans showed they would grow to be very short adults. This is a very serious decision with no guarantee of predictable results. If your boy is receiving adequate nutrition and rest then you are doing all you can to optimize his healthy physical development.

Several of the small, young boys I've seen have begun supervised weight training at around age 11; their increased strength and body changes have not necessarily eliminated the teasing about their being 'a shrimp" from those who will always tease, but it has caused their peers to say things like, "he may be short but he's wicked strong." Some other boys have also discovered they were very fast runners, which begins to become a much more peer-valued attribute. I've known others to become proficient in martial arts. These clearly are all choices that seek to give a boy self-esteem about his body. Some boys steer clear of this area altogether and distinguish themselves in other areas: pottery, shooting pool, scouting, music, etc..

The unfortunate reality about being a small boy in this culture is that you will most likely receive jibes for it throughout your childhood. The development of some snappy, funny comebacks (not angry, bitter sniping) when he gets teased can greatly diffuse the power of the teasing and the teaser; even though he may be crying inside, he can and will score repeated points with his peers by rolling with these punches and coming out ahead of the teasers. He can also begin to be valued as a kind and/or loyal friend at this stage. The more desperate he shows himself to be, in terms of seeking popularity, the more he will most likely not achieve that goal.

Meanwhile, without being obvious and patronizing, continue to praise him for his positive, non-body related traits. I know your heart aches for him, but I'm sure things can look up with some patience and creative counsel on your part.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

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