Category Archives: Concerns parents have about children

The First Day of School

  I don’t know who was more nervous about my son’s first day of grade 1, me or him. On the surface I had been positive and he was full of bravado but the unconscious told a different story – I’d had bad dreams and he had taken up sleepwalking.

At school children will experience some of their greatest challenges, successes, failures and humiliations. In separating from their parents they will learn about how the world works, about managing social interactions and about people outside their own families. They will face up to their strengths, weaknesses, interests and who they are socially, but not without some anxiety along the way.

Most children have similar sorts of worries around starting school. I asked three young kids what they remembered about that first day, and here’s what they said

1. “I thought I wouldn’t pass because I wasn’t clever at that time.”

2. “I was worried the kids would be mean to me and I wouldn’t find my way back.”

3. “I didn’t know who would play with me.”

These are typical concerns along with “How will I know what to do and where to go?”, “Where are the bathrooms?”, “What about bullies?”, “Do I need to be able to read or write or spell already?”, and “Can I cope with saying goodbye to mom or dad and will I cry?”

Such worries can make even a well-adjusted child anxious. And that anxiety or fear can build up in a child’s mind, leading them to act on it in many ways — from tummy aches and sleep problems to out-and-out refusal to go to school.

If parents have mixed feelings (such as guilt or anxiety) about sending a child to school, this can add to the child’s reluctance. A child’s experience starting school is influenced by their parents’ feelings and attitudes.

Parents of young kids often feel emotional as they send their child off for the first day of big school. Kids can pick up on that nervousness, making their own worries even more intense. Months of buildup to the start of school, talking about it as a big event, can also make a child anxious.

What if the first week of school arrives and a child still doesn’t want to go to school? He or she might not say it directly, but rather claim to have a tummy ache or a sore throat that quickly disappears once it’s decided to keep him or her home from school. Kids might hide when it’s time to get ready to go to school, or throw temper tantrums. Anxiety can also cause a child to have trouble sleeping or have nightmares while they’re sleeping. Little ones especially may become very clingy especially if they aren’t used to being away from parents during the day. If you don’t deal with the anxiety and its causes, it can get out of control very easily. A vicious cycle is set up when an overly sensitive parent keeps an anxious child at home, only for it to be even more difficult to send the child to school the following day.

So, no matter what, parents shouldn’t let anxiety keep kids away from school. All of these signs of worry may end soon after the start of school. But if they continue for several weeks, talk to the teacher and get some guidance.

What Parents Can Do To Help Their Child

  • Show interest and be supportive. Take your kid’s fears seriously. Don’t criticise, mock or tease as they are easily humiliated. Talk to your children about their anxieties and help them articulate these. As I have written before, speaking fears out as words diminishes their unspoken power and renders them normal.
  • Talk to your child about what to expect – the activities, the schedule and the other children.
  • Share your own memories of school –  be generally positive, but realistic. Your own experience can be an opportunity to model coping strategies
  • Read books about going to school.
  • If possible take your child to school to get used to the layout (where his classroom is, where the bathrooms are, which desk is his, etc.) and to introduce him to the teacher. Many schools have orientation programmes for pupils starting Grade R or Grade 1 – these are extremely useful to attend.
  • Identify a buddy at school – this can decrease apprehension about being alone in the new setting.
  • Get your child in a routine some time before school starts, going to bed earlier and waking up earlier.
  • Make the getting-ready-for-school ritual as stress-free as possible. For example, with your child’s help lay out all books and clothes the night before.
  • Suggest that your child takes a familiar object or a family picture to school.
  • Be a coach – talk through and role play situations. Break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable steps.
  • Don’t overdo it though as this can make kids more anxious.

Remember to be realistic about who your child is. If they are temperamentally anxious or shy, starting school may be more difficult than for confident kids. Even in these cases don’t overprotect or underestimate their ability to manage stressful situations. It‘s not only important to trust your child’s ability to cope, but also to be able to trust the school and teacher and most importantly to trust yourself to let go.

The art of monster taming

In the last 24 hours my 7-year old son has done the following: stand in the middle of the lounge, mimic Michael Jackson and moonwalk backwards out the door; use a four-letter word while arguing with his friend; hug me lovingly while whispering in my ear, “I just farted’; play a computer game called Zoo Tycoon with the finesse of a teenager; shoot hoops in the back garden and sulk for an hour because he missed three shots in a row; stroke his baby cousin’s cheek tenderly; lie on the sofa watching television, smearing pizza over the cushions, pretending not to hear us telling him to tidy up and go bath.

Welcome to the rollercoaster ride. One moment your child is sweet and loving and the next a monster awakes. Trying to pin down a reason for the change is the sort of challenge that Sherlock Holmes would not relish. But parents know something Holmes doesn’t. Their child is possessed. Only an exorcism will do. Until the priest arrives, however, a number of sensible measures may be employed as holding actions when your child is being impossible.

  1. Try distraction – and try it as soon as you see the warning signs of a tantrum or meltdown looming. Point out something very interesting to your child, use cajoling, humour (sparingly though or your over-sensitive and overwrought child might feel humiliated and mocked) and judicious bribery. If the idea of parenting by bribery makes you feel uncomfortable, think of it as a reward or incentive programme, just as the management consultants did at your company recently.
  1. Offer choices. “Richard, you can either pick up all the dog mess in the garden for the next two years, or you can brush your teeth.” “I’ll brush my teeth,” he smirks victoriously. Children love the power to choose. Of all parenting strategies, this one is the simplest and most effective. Keep choices clear and limited, not “what vegetable do you want with your supper?” but “what would you prefer, peas or carrots with your chicken?”
  1. Time out. Tell her you love her but she’s going to her room anyway for a time out – a minute for every year of her life, or until she calms down. She may break things or shriek horrendously but she’s staying there until time is up. The main idea of Time Out is not to punish, but to de-escalate, defuse and calm a situation down. Many parents are concerned that sending a child to Time Out in their bedroom won’t work as there are things to do and play with in a child’s room, but that’s the point – distraction. As long as the behaviour that you don’t like has stopped. Time Outs shouldn’t happen in locked bathrooms, dark cellars etc.
  1. Walk away (emotionally). It is essential that parents stay calm in the face of the enraged child. Do not rise to the challenge of each battle, choose the ones worth fighting and then stand your ground. Stay calm. Shrieking at an already shrieking child is adding fuel to the fire. And never worry about what the neighbours will think about ignoring the prolonged wailing of your child because you’ve reminded him that no-one died from not owning a Ben 10 Omnitrix. Staying calm and walking away when necessary minimises the temptation to lash out at your child. Smacking as a way of disciplining is controversial and potentially problematic. My experience as a parent and psychologist is that smacking is not a particularly useful long-term strategy for managing children’s behaviour. It allows adults the illusion of control and temporary relief from difficult situations, but if used often becomes increasingly destructive. Children learn to hide their true feelings, obeying out of fear not respect. They learn that people who are bigger or stronger have control and that physical expressions of anger are acceptable.

Coming out

This is the column that must be written – the topic just came out to me, you could even say. The Gay Pride March this weekend through the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg set the scene.

In seemingly unrelated acts I first bought Eusebius McKaiser’s book of thought-provoking essays, ‘A Bantu in my Bathroom’. Last night I reached the section on sexuality, and read with a great deal of interest the chapter titled ‘Don’t you just wanna try, my son? With a woman?’

And then this morning I found out that October 11 is International Coming Out Day.

So I got to thinking about coming out. And how important, difficult and often traumatic an issue it is for gay children (of all ages) and their (usually) straight families. Coming out is telling the world the world who you really are. As such it’s an important social and psychological process, a rite of passage.

McKaiser writes about his experience of coming out to his father, via a handwritten letter posted the old fashioned way through the mail. This was as a 19-year old when he was in second year at Rhodes University. He relates, with great poignancy and empathy, his father’s tearful response to this “new fact about his son- a big fact- and doing so with raw emotion, the stuff of humanity”.

But he makes it clear that while he understands that the roots of his father’s conservative attitudes are in the bigotry and ignorance that are vigorously transmitted through our culture, he refuses to be silenced or closeted by them.  “I will not condone homophobia by giving someone the space to get used to me being me … I would not tolerate my friend’s, family and colleagues’ racism, so why the hell would I tolerate and negotiate their homophobia?”

Homophobia is a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), sometimes leading to acts of violence and expressions of hostility. It does seem to me that these words are hardly adequate to describe the hate crimes, a lesbian being ‘correctively raped’; a man being beaten; a child being humiliated and scorned; a student tortured, tied to fence and left to die.

An American report on FBI national hate crime statistics from 1995–2008 found that LGBT people were ‘far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime’.

There are places in the world today where homosexuality is a capital offence. In most of Africa LGBT people are persecuted, vulnerable to state harassment and afforded few protections.

Even though the post-apartheid constitution in South Africa was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, we experience the paradox of laws that ensure equality and dignity for LGBT people, while in practice people who are gay, or perceived to act or dress in gender non-conforming ways, still struggle to find physical safety, never mind social acceptance.

Meanwhile, in middle class urban areas people who are open about their sexual orientation are more likely to fear rejection and ridicule than actual physical harm.  But feeling rejected or believing that you are tearing your family apart is hugely damaging, both psychologically and socially.

So coming out has its risks. Why do it then?

This is a question Eusebius McKaiser also poses. Why not simply evade the awkward questions asked by curious (and concerned) family members, talk about your partner in gender-neutral ways and try pass as straight?

As a psychologist the answer is clear to me. To be forced to live an inauthentic half-life, to spend all your time hiding, concealing and fearing exposure is to live a life of constant stress and distress. In the face of the historical stigma associated with being gay or bisexual or transgendered, and without strong support systems, many LGBT youngsters internalize societal homophobia and are vulnerable to extreme feelings of self-hate and shame.

Gay teenagers have higher rates of suicide, depression and substance abuse than their straight counterparts. This is not because gay people are hard-wired for more psychological problems, but because of the stress of concealing their true selves, feeling different and being rejected.

And this is where parents and families can make all the difference. When a child’s family rejects him, the odds of attempted suicide are nine times higher than the general population. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual young adults from very rejecting families are nearly six times more likely to have major depression and three to five times more likely to use illegal drugs or have unprotected sex.

I’m not saying you, as a parent, have to be thrilled that your child is gay. It may be really uncomfortable facing your own assumptions and prejudices; it is difficult accepting that your child’s path in life might be different from the journey you imagined; it is really scary to have your child face a world of bigotry and discrimination.

But you are their parent.

They need you in their corner. They need you to face the world with them. They need you to accept and love them. Because that’s what parents should do.

And the award goes to….

THE only prize I ever won in primary school came with a scented, rainbow-coloured eraser with a little brush attached to it. I loved that eraser. It stood out from the plain white ones that would so quickly stain grey and smelled of nothing.

And the reason for the prize? For drinking the most milk. Seriously. In my Grade 2 year the school still sold small triangular cartons of fresh milk that were delivered to each class at “feeding time” before first break. And in 1974, I drank the most milk.

My sister, on the other hand, won a prize in matric for “Social Awareness and Compassion for Others”. This foreshadowed a successful career as a social worker, then a psychologist (yes, there are two of us in one family). We all teased her that she’d got a trophy for being a nice person, and I suppose we wondered a bit if it was a consolation prize for not being the top academic or best sportswoman.

It’s that time of year again. The time of school prizegivings, award ceremonies and valedictory services, the ritual of certificates, merits and colours, of parental pride and disappointment.

I was amused to read Sunday Times columnist Ndumiso Ncgobo writing about his son’s Grade 1 prizegiving, “Which one’s your kid?” in his Headline Act column in Lifestyle Magazine last week. He raises the debate about whether rewarding everybody for something (like drinking the most milk) devalues the significance of awards.

Should only excellence be rewarded? Or effort? If you are already smart and talented, shouldn’t your wonderful work and brilliant report be enough of an acknowledgement? And what about the cost of awards and public acclamation?

A short while ago my son, who has never won an academic award before, asked me whether I thought he was going to receive one. I had no idea. I know his school doesn’t give everyone in the grade an award so it was no sure thing. I also couldn’t bear the idea of him (or me?) being disappointed. I gave him a long talk about how I believe he could get an award, but that other kids had also worked very hard to … “Thanks Mom,” he cut me off with all the sarcasm a 10-year-old can muster. “Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

Honestly, I’m not absolutely clear about how prizegiving ceremonies should work and what the best way would be to recognise children’s achievements.

I know that children who don’t ever win prizes can feel left out or despondent. And that the children who do win prizes can feel pressurised and overly focused on the prize, not the process of learning. Perhaps no prizes should be given at all, or awards given only to acknowledge effort and progress. How do you even go about measuring that?

It’s easiest to simply reward the person with the highest marks. Not only does it seem to be a more objective measure of success, but it could be argued that it prepares children to be robust in society’s survival of the fittest.

But schools, like the Oscar and Nobel prize committees, use imperfect tools to make their decisions. Those tools are called human beings.

Have you ever heard of Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Jose Echeragay, Henryk Sienkiewicz or Giosue Carducci? Well, they have all won the Nobel prize for literature, unlike Vladimir Nabokov, WH Auden, Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.

Imagine another young man: he hates the rigidities of school, bunks lessons, absorbs ideas from family friends and visiting intellectuals around the dinner table, and spends much of his time working on complex physics. This man receives no school awards and makes little impression on the public consciousness until years later. He leaves school saying, “I have given up the opportunity to get to a university.”

The point of this anecdote is not to say that schools can’t teach or acknowledge the Albert Einsteins of the world, but that, even with the best will in the world, school prizegivings reward children who fit a particular mould, according to a fairly arbitrary definition. Why top 10 and not top 11? Why 80%, not 77% or 82%? How to measure most improved? From an E to a D or from a B to an A?

If you think I’m being over-sensitive to children’s feelings, try this. Put yourself in a group of randomly chosen parents. Perform a series of parental tasks judged by an observer, then allow him to select three best parents in the room, none of whom is you. How do you feel? Has the prizegiving motivated you to be a better parent, or do you feel a sense of injustice because the judge just never “got you”?

Whatever schools decide, parents need to help keep this issue in perspective. Whether your child wins an award or not, accept the moment gracefully, but resolve to focus your child on working on her strengths. It’s her understanding of those strengths, and the need to persist with those, that will lead to a successful, happy life, not awards.

Fail?

If you’re a parent I have some bad news for you: Success for your child is not inevitable. In fact, he’s going to be a loser. He’ll be trampled over on the soccer field by bigger, faster boys, and some smart girl at school will consign him to ‘first loser’s position’ in Maths.

A demotivational poster from despair.com

Of course, I’m mimicking the language of a particular approach to life and parenting that believes we are all destined for success. With the right amount of positive thinking and avoidance of negative thoughts, our children can achieve greatness. This philosophy reached its absurd climax in Rhonda Byrne’s book, The Secret, which appears to advise people to turn their gaze away from people who have failed.

In this approach, ‘success’ for children is defined as winning awards, making the A team, being perky and positive at all times, and one day making lots and lots of money. Failure to achieve some of these goals in childhood, which is inevitable for most kids, is experienced by parents as a blow to their ego.

Which begs the question, when children ‘fail’ whose disappointment is it really, yours or theirs?  Parents who live vicariously through their children are attempting to make up for their own experiences of failure through their children’s success. The child becomes a narcissistic extension of the parent, placing huge pressure on the child to perform. This view of success requires not just that your child triumphs, but that others must fail.

It’s human to admit that when your child is outperformed by other children, it stings a little. You want your child to be the one scoring goals for the team or being chosen for Science Olympiad, and you experience an uncomfortable moment when you discover your best friend’s child has been chosen for extension work and yours hasn’t.

Don’t pretend to yourself you don’t have these feelings, as some writers of self help motivational texts might advise. There comes a powerful and calming release from accepting that you are as susceptible to the same 7 deadly parental sins as anyone else, especially pride and envy.

Put your child’s ‘failure’ in perspective. He’s on a long journey in which the prize of success, as defined in a constructive way, goes to the one who endures, not the one who wins the first sprint. Children develop in spurts at different times. Some surge ahead now while others surpass them later. Some kids thrive at school while others find their niche only after that. Some children never lead the pack in measurable ways but succeed in being their best self.

Part of keeping things in perspective is revisiting your definition of success. Children are aware of the material ways society defines success, so it’s your job to stand tall for them. Remind them that a successful child is one who overcomes fear, takes necessary risks and keeps trying.  A timid child’s belated victory over the high slide in the playground is a victory to be acknowledged, not an embarrassment because his peers are already riding bikes. A girl who trips in 60m dash, keeps running and comes last, is a person whose courage should be celebrated.

It’s these moments that define you as a parent and lay a solid foundation for your child’s success. Steps to consider when your child stumbles:

  • Read your child’s emotions because some situations don’t need the topic of disappointment to be raised, as some events don’t need to be rehashed;
  • If you do say something, reassure your child how much respect you have that he tried his best;
  • Then redirect him towards the memory of past successes or things he is good at;
  • Finally, don’t blame others or promise to change what has happened (eg, phone his school to demand that he be given the Best Footballer trophy that was rightly his).

It’s a mistake to treat your child’s failure as contaminating and as a threat to your ego and your family’s legacy of success. If you do that, you run the serious risk or raising children who become fearful and overly-dependent, selfish, or very materialistic.

Bill Gates is said to have quipped that, ‘Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces people into thinking they can’t lose.’Our children do lose. If we, as parents, understand the inevitability of these necessary defeats, then we are helping our children to become the best versions of them selves over time.