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Suddenly your child is BEDWETTING, feels ANXIOUS, speaks LIKE A BABY or sucks their THUMB – all these are SIGNS of a PROBLEM. Psychologists tell us the causes and offer advice.
Your child has started acting strangely and as their parent, you know there’s a problem but can’t tell what it is. Counselling psychologist Thenjiwe Nhlapo says it could be anything: “For instance, when a child refuses to go to school or complains that it’s boring, is aggressive or has angry outbursts, gets anxious or nervous when talking about school and displays regressive behaviour such as acting or speaking like a baby, sucking their thumb or bedwetting. These are signs that something ’s wrong at school.”
Zozibini, 30, says: “When my son started school, he was very excited at first. But one Monday morning, he started crying when I woke him up. I knew there was a problem.”
Educational psychologist Cara Blackie adds that there are many reasons that could cause a child to start acting out. “It’s best that you follow up to find out what the problem is,” she warns. “Be patient and supportive. Your child is probably aware of their shortcomings and is already frustrated, which could lead to self-esteem difficulties and depression.” LEARNING DIFFICULTY When children are not coping with a problem it sometimes has to do with their learning ability. “Learning difficulties can be hard to diagnose, which is why parents need to have a good relationship with their child and their teachers, so they can tell you if they notice anything particular or if they are worried about something,” says Blackie. “Also, be involved daily. Do homework together and engage them, and you’ll see if they’re struggling. It’s normal for children to mix up ‘B’ and ‘D’ or similar sounds, but if this persists till grade 3, you can seek professional help.”
Counselling psychologist Charlene McIntosh emphasises that parents should not make the learning difficulty the end of the road, but rather find positives that their child might have. “Seek professional support and keep things in perspective. A learning disability isn’t insurmountable. Remind yourself that everyone faces obstacles.
“As a parent you need to teach your child on how to deal with obstacles without making them to feel discouraged or overwhelmed. Remember that your child is so much more than just scholastic skills and numbers and scores on paper, or a diagnosis,” says the Durban based psychologist.”
Zuki, 35 is a mother of one. Her son’s school said he had attention deficit disorder (ADD) and told her to put him on medication to help him concentrate. “I think schools are lazy at times,” she says, “because which seven-year-old boy isn’t full of energy and doesn’t get distracted easily? My son’s teacher said we should get him checked out as he might have ADD. She recommended that he take Ritalin.
“I did none of that. With the help of an educational psychologist I found other ways to help my son. I didn’t believe medication would solve his problems. He is 10 now and doing well at school. He has no problems, so the games we downloaded online and all the colourful, fun ways we learnt for doing homework clearly helped.”
McIntosh adds: “Focus on the child’s strengths, not their weaknesses. Every child is unique. Develop your child’s selfesteem by focusing on what makes them special, what they contribute to the family. Give them compliments, like ‘you are a clever boy’ so it builds their confidence.”
A 2014 survey by consumer insights company Pondering Panda found that bullying at school is a reality. The company interviewed 5 314 pupils, teachers and family members between the ages of 13 and 34 across the country. Its survey found that 36% of respondents described bullying as one of the biggest problems at school, compared with 28% a year ago. But how would you know if your child was being bullied? Children can be mean, especially to the new child in a grade, and older children can also take advantage of younger ones. Nhlapo says there are several indicators of bullying happening. “Parents can start watching out for behavioural changes like: refusal to go to school, reports of bodily pains, destroyed possessions – such as a broken lunchbox or torn clothes – unexplained injuries, irregular sleeping patterns or nightmares, sudden changes in eating patterns – for example, not eating or binge eating – avoiding social interactions and not wanting to be seen in public.
“Also, watch for sudden aggressive behaviour such as seeing your child being aggressive towards other siblings or with friends they never fought with before, or being defiant towards you. These can all be signs that your child is being bullied.”
Tebogo, 38, a lawyer and mother of two, thought having her daughters in different schools would allow them to blossom without one being in the shadow of the other. “My children are five years apart, so I decided they should be independent and have their own personalities and lives. I put them in different schools. I regretted that when I found out that my youngest was being bullied. I felt if her older sister was around, that wouldn’t have happened.”
Constant communication with your child is the best solution to problems that may arise. As Blackie says: “If you have a great relationship with your child, you can see, and have them tell you, if there are any problems. Some may tell you straight out. But in many instances, children may not tell, so parents need to ask questions every day. After school listen closely to what they say. Don’t just dismiss what they say as nothing,” she continues. “If the line goes like, ‘So-and-so is mean and won’t play with me’, is a constant refrain, and the same child is being mentioned every time your child is sad or upset, go and talk to the teacher. Hence, a good relationship with the child’s teacher is vital,” advises Blackie.
PROBLEMS AT HOME
Whether it’s a financial situation, a separation, constant fights and arguing, physical or emotional abuse in or outside the home, can affect your child’s performance at school. Researchers at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child say when the home is not stable, it may affect a child in one way or another – and even make them not to develop at all, limit their success in elementary school and later life.
When Zoe, 35, separated from her husband, Sipho, it affected their nine-year-old child negatively. “My son has always been close to his dad. They did everything together. Then he moved out as we were experiencing marital problems. This affected him badly.
“He started directing his anger at me. I thought it would pass, but he has been starting fights at school. We are now seeing a therapist together as a family to try to work things out and have him speak about his anger,” she says. “We also want to reassure him that mommy and daddy are no longer living together but we’l l always love and care for him.”
Nhlapo advises that honesty is best if there are changes looming in the household. Sit your children down and explain what is happening. “The most important thing children need is to feel safe and secure in their environment,” she says.
“When parents are experiencing any difficulties, they need to reassure children by speaking about the issues. If parents do not talk about evident problems in the family, the child will draw their own conclusions, which often leaves them stressed out about their parents.
“Also, being too vulnerable in front of the children can make your offspring conclude that their parents cannot handle the situation, which then causes them to worry about their parents when at school.
“So, to help children feel safe and secure, it’s important to reassure your children that you as the parent(s) are aware of the situation but are able to manage it, and that things remain normal,” she says.