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Help Me Help My Child (Jan 2007)

Past cases: January 2007

Here are the cases dealt with on Ruth’s page for January 2007.

Gina is 14 and asks questions about politics. What should I say?

An old adage says: “Never discuss politics or religion”, and my understanding was that this was because these are subjects that people feel so strongly about that discussions may lead to serious breakdown in relationships. And I’m guessing that this is why you may feel uncomfortable too.

You say that, where you live, there is a lot of stress within society and an increasing lack of freedom of speech – the newspapers seem to be monitored quite closely. Gina has obviously picked up on this, as well as getting to an age where she is beginning to think about ideas and situations beyond the immediate. So she is asking you about the rights and wrongs of free speech and religious tolerance, as well as how these apply to her own life and the society you live in.

As in so many societies, these things are bound up in the politics of the country. Some things seem never to be discussed, and you have the feeling that it would be risky to discuss alternative points of view – particularly since her father is employed by the government. This makes perfect sense, but it is also laudable that Gina is asking you for help and trying to establish her own ideas and philosophy. Inevitably, since she and her father do not get on well, she is inclined to an opposite opinion.

I think your first priority has to be to try and get her to understand that there are many sides to every question. Like most adolescents, she probably appears dogmatic and quite rigid, but this is just a technique to help her to hold on to her own ideas at this stage. I’m sure she realises how little she knows. Her experience is limited and localised.

Another useful technique would be to encourage her to look at how some story is treated in a range of newspapers – the Internet is perfect for this. You may even find that they see different stories as priorities, they certainly will apportion blame differently. If you can’t access some of the media because of government censorship, this is an excellent example for her and should enable her to understand your anxieties.

Grace (11) seems to need to wash her hands more than seems reasonable.

You say this has sort of crept up on you – she was always a clean child but now gets upset if she can’t wash her hands perhaps fifteen times a day.

This sounds as if it might be the beginnings of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder where people feel the need to do certain actions or…??? The OR is very important because most of the children whom I’ve seen with this genuinely believe something awful will happen if they don’t do whatever action they feel the need to do. This may be washing hands, it may be tidying excessively, or touching door handles four times – all sorts of seemingly irrational things, but if they don’t do it, their parents might die, or there might be an awful accident.

This is a big responsibility. One boy I saw believed that if he didn’t do: climbing the stairs several times, or going through doors three times, or sitting down on his bed four times etc, one of his parents would die. You have to be very very brave to risk something like that happening.

A large percentage of the population has OCD to some extent, and it seems to run in families. I find it hard not to straighten pictures but otherwise I’m fine. Once you start asking friends, you will find that several of them triple-check that they have turned something off, or go back and check they put the handbrake on properly, or eat things in a certain order. At this sort of level, it’s easy enough to live with. It becomes a problem only when the rituals and habits take over your life; and I was always surprised by the families who would casually apologise for something, saying something like, “We had to wait until he’d done his handwashing thing,” as if it was quite usual.

And if this sounds a bit silly, think of the numbers of people who wear the same underpants when “their” team plays, or even the players who always have to put their strip on in the same way before a match etc. At that level it’s often called superstition but it’s still really hard to stop and you hear rational people explain that it really wouldn’t make any difference and they’ll change things tomorrow…

Anyway, what you do is spend some time teaching the child to relax, getting him [often] to feel brave enough to take the risk, helping him to consider cognitively the chance of something awful happening. Start with keeping a diary of all the times Grace is washing her hands. Then see if Grace is able to risk not washing her hands one time – just see if she can try that and the world does not fall in. With relaxation she just might be able to manage it. Once she has done it once, the next time should be easier.

It’s not a difficult thing to manage and there are wonderful websites, but it may be helpful for you to do it with a professional who is outside the situation.

Dominic just won’t talk about his feelings – he walks away.

This is very much a boy thing, and a man thing. But there have been many recent attempts to change this. Internalising emotions, bottling them up, keeping them a secret is bad for physical health as well as being bad for relationships and life in general. So schools have for some time talked about working on Emotional Literacy, and some of them have actually done it.

It helps to start with small children and encourage them all together to take turns talking about their favourite things, their happiest times, their best holidays etc. And gradually, you introduce more difficult topics – perhaps what makes you mad in the classroom, or what embarrassed you once. In this way, children learn to talk about things that are not necessarily easy – particularly if they come from the tradition of the British stiff upper lip – and also learn the relevant vocabulary to use. So many teenagers say to me “I’m depressed” when they mean “fed-up”, or say “a bit fed-up” when they mean “devastated because their Grandad has died”.

Dominic is still only 10 and obviously this has not been done at school.

Try to make a habit of talking to him at bedtime. Children are much softer and more receptive when they are going to bed. If you can go in to him when he has just got into bed, you could start a dialogue about what has happened during the day. Don’t be negative about things, but encourage him to tell you what happened, how he feels about it, whether it was fair, whether he’d do it again. And tell him when you are proud of him, or he handled it well. If you make this a habit, so that he can rely on it, he will start to save things up to tell you at bedtime.

And gradually, you will be able to talk to him about this sort of thing at other times. He may still walk off in a temper sometimes because you are so silly you just don’t understand, but he is more likely to be increasingly able to explain how he feels. And when he can explain it, he might be better able to share.

Of course, he might just be a very private person, in which case the conversations are likely to stay in the bedroom, but it will be a very good start.

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