Dear David Coleman: Should I homeschool my vulnerable daughter?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My 16-year-old daughter has hearing and visual difficulties and was also diagnosed with ADD. She has always been bullied and has no friends. This is her second secondary school. She is in Junior Cert but I wonder if home-schooling would be an option next year? She has very low self-esteem and is on the brink of tears every day. She suffers from severe anxiety about exams but always procrastinates and never prepares. I think homeschooling would nurture her brittle spirit. What do you think?
David replies: I was very taken by your description of your daughter as having a "brittle spirit". Given all the difficulties she has, it seems to be a very apt phrase, encompassing both the hardship she experiences and her potential vulnerability.
She must be finding it so challenging this year. Facing a State exam is hard at the best of times, but if you are already at a low ebb, emotionally, it can seem like a daunting prospect. My heart goes out her. The one thing most teenagers (indeed most of us at any age) desire is to feel connected and accepted by friends and family.
Building our identity is hugely influenced by those connections and is all the more difficult if we feel outside of the "norm" or if we feel exposed or helpless because of some disability or perceived difference.
While she sounds like she needs to be nurtured and minded, there is also the danger that too much "minding" might increase her sense of helplessness. Most of us would do anything to help our children, but we sometimes run the risk of disempowering them if we do too much.
Be careful to understand the depth of your own feelings as they may be driving how you respond to her and how you engage with her. I could imagine that you feel quite powerless, anxious, protective and distressed as you watch her struggle.
You have a tricky job of finding the balance between supporting her enough that she doesn't disintegrate, emotionally, without taking over from her.
Has she given any clear indication that she wants to leave school? Is she looking for alternatives to her current situation or does this idea come from you? While leaving school might be the right course of action, do take lots of time to discuss it with her.
In those discussions, be very aware of what your own motivations are, such that you give her the space (unencumbered by your need to protect her, for example) to really consider what she'd like to do.
Has she any support in her current school? Do the adults actively encourage her, or help her, with making friends, for example? Could they set up some kind of buddy system for her where one, or several, of the boys or girls in her year takes her under their wing a bit? Before considering removing her from school it might be worth seeing what practical help they can offer in this regard.
Your daughter needs practical opportunities to feel good about herself. Often this comes from doing things for other people, even more than focusing on ourselves. Have you, or she, considered volunteering? I don't know how severe her hearing and visual difficulties are, but could she offer support, guidance, or just a "big-sisterly ear" to other children with similar, or more severe disabilities?
What strengths does she have? What are her talents? What are the positive aspects of her temperament or personality (even if she doesn't currently have a chance to show them)? Might she excel at sport, or does she connect with animals, or younger children? Can you find any passions or desires that she wants to pursue?
Often youngsters who have been, on the face of it, rejected or excluded from things that seem easy, natural or normal, to their peers lose hope that there is anything that is worthwhile about them or their lives.
Sometimes the biggest job we have as parents is to give our children back that hope. We might inspire them ourselves, or we may connect them with the right person, organisation or experience that inspires them and reignites their hope that there is something positive, in life, for them.
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