Saturday 23 September 2017

Is my stressed-out 12-year-old going to have a breakdown?

Dancing
queen: The
function of
pastimes for
children is
to have fun,
and to
challenge
themselves
Dancing queen: The function of pastimes for children is to have fun, and to challenge themselves

My 12-year-old daughter is a high achiever. She is great in school, plays GAA for her school, her club and her county.

She also Irish dances to a high level. My worry is she appears to me to be totally stressed so we have decided to get her to take a break from dancing for the next few months and the football season is now over.

What I need to know is, are we making the best decision and what else should we do while she is on this break? Is she having a breakdown, and how will we know? We don't know what is the best direction to take because there are plenty of high achievers out there who are not stressed so it is part of her make-up. Any advice as to where we should go from here?

Taking a break and re-evaluating things seems like a good decision. While you are re-evaluating I think there are several areas you need to consider. Essentially you need to consider the quantity and quality of the activities that she is involved in.

Firstly, look at the range of activities that your daughter does and look at why she is doing them. School, clearly, is essential and so she doesn't have an option there.

With regard to her extra-curricular activities, ask yourselves, and her, what does she get out of them? What meaning do these activities have for her? For most children the function of sports and pastimes is to have fun, to challenge themselves, to get exercise, sometimes to compete, to mix socially, to learn skills and to occupy themselves.

Some sports and activities will fulfil all of these functions; some will address a part of them. But the key thing to be alert to is when any sport or activity becomes too heavily focused in one of these areas.

Typically, stress builds if the focus becomes all about competition. But equally, if there isn't a sense of balance in the good that children get from their activities, then it is a problem.

Usually sports are a great antidote to academic pressure and can be an important release valve for children who are high academic achievers. In your daughter's case, though, it sounds like the sports and exercise bring their own pressures.

Irish dancing, for example, has a reputation as a fiercely competitive activity, where a relentless pursuit of success on the Feis circuit can easily burn out a love of dancing.

I wonder, therefore, what are your expressed and unexpressed expectations of her when it comes to both the dancing and the football? Does she pick up from you an expectation that she must succeed, that second best is not an option?

Even if you don't give off this kind of attitude does she carry it herself?

It may be that she has grown up to believe that because she has talent she must use it -- not to the best of her ability, but to be the best. If she has built up, in her head, a belief that the only reason to play football and to do the dancing is to win then she will feel under constant pressure to perform.

That kind of pressure could well lead her to be stressed out and, in time, to burn out.

So, while you are reconsidering her activities, spend time looking at how to bring balance to what she does. At her age, competitive sports are fine, and it is okay for her to want to do well. But a balanced view will always be that her primary aim should be to have fun and then to do as well as she can.

If she stops enjoying the intrinsic nature of football and dancing, then she might drop out of these sports in her early teens. Then she might lose real opportunities to further develop her skills and will, likely, lose some great pastimes that will keep her safely occupied and focused through the turbulence of teenage life.

It is worth talking to her coaches and dance teachers about how she seems to approach the extra-curricular activities to better judge if she might be too competitive or have too high expectations for herself.

If, however, she does seem to have balance and perspective in her attitude to the sports and school work, then it is time to consider the second factor -- the quantity of stuff she is doing.

We can often over-estimate how much energy our children have. We watch them darting around the house for years like battery-operated bunnies and then assume that they can just keep on going.

However, small children who are busy in this fashion just run out of steam at some point in the day and they get cross, grumpy and fractious. We learn to expect it and we also learn to be ready to provide some quiet time, or some down time for them.

By the time children reach about 10 years old we can forget to monitor them in this way and we often assume that they will monitor their energy levels themselves. But actually, they may not be able to regulate their activity and can easily overdo it.

If your daughter is playing GAA at three different levels and then Irish dancing at least once a week she must be on the go most evenings and regularly at the weekends?

To cope with this amount of exercise, she needs to be eating well and she needs to be resting too. Both food and rest are vital to rebuild her energy reserves. This might be an area that you need to keep an eye on, on her behalf.

So, if she has balance in her food, her rest, her attitude and intellectual and physical level of challenge then she won't burn out, or have a breakdown.

High-achieving children need very little external motivation but, more importantly, they may need to have some of their expectations and activities reduced somewhat to find the right balance of internal motivation.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence

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