Friday 9 December 2016

How can we get our son (16) to accept counselling?

Published 29/11/2016 | 02:30

Photo posed by model
Photo posed by model

Advice from David Coleman on how to help a teenage son struggling with anxiety and depression and on how to accomodate the needs of several children of different ages at once.

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Q. What can we do when our 16-year-old son can't or won't accept help? He first suffered anxiety and depression when he was just 10-years-old. Since then he has missed so much school, lost his place on all sports teams and lost contact with so many friends. He is becoming increasingly isolated even within his own family. We have, after much persuasion and rowing, brought him to several counsellors and psychologists. He has attended one or at most two appointments, but has not engaged. How can we help him to help himself?

David replies: You sound very worried about your son. It seems that no matter what you and he have tried over the years his difficulties have become more entrenched.

His initial experiences of anxiety and panic may have led him to start avoiding situations like school, or sports training. Missing out on those opportunities may have led him to feel more isolated and alone, leading to increased feelings of anxiety and depression.

This is a very common example of how negativity can breed negativity. When youngsters get locked into such a negative spiral of experiences it can be incredibly difficult to help them to exit the cycle.

Sometimes we, or they, can be lucky, and something in their life or experience can be very positive. Perhaps, for example, a reconnection with a good friend might give them hope and confidence about rebuilding other friendships?

Perhaps some success at getting back into school, for short days for example, might give a youngster some hope and confidence that they can, in fact, cope fine in school, allowing them to slowly and gradually build themselves back up to full attendance.

One of the key words, in the examples I just gave, is "hope". Your son does need to experience hope that things can change and get better for him.

But, unless fortune favours him and he just "happens" to have experiences such as these, it will fall back on his own motivation to challenge his current "stuckness" and to try different things to re-engage with people and pastimes that he once loved.

That internal motivation can be hard to access, since many youngsters who get stuck in anxiety and depression become more and more helpless, relying on parents, siblings or friends to encourage, motivate and activate them.

This too can become a vicious cycle, where the more we try to help our children, the more they depend on us to help them and the less they feel able to help themselves. Indeed, if we do too much for our children they can even develop what is called a "learned helplessness".

So perhaps the point for you to begin, is by showing your son where he can find hope that things can be different and better for him. For example, there are many stories, both written and spoken, by sufferers of depression and anxiety that demonstrate that it is possible to deal with these feelings.

Naturally, the closer your son can see his own experience mirrored in the experience of someone else, the more he may feel that it is possible for him too to overcome the struggles he is having. Niall Breslin, or Bressie as he is better known, is a great example of someone who has taken the courage to talk about his own experiences of mental health to allow others, typically young people, to feel the hope that something can change and improve.

Don't give up your own hope about his willingness or ability to engage with a psychologist or psychotherapist either. Maybe he just hasn't found the right person yet. You will probably have to encourage him to have another go because, ultimately, if his anxiety and depression are significant and chronic, he will probably need professional help to deal with it.

The other thing you can do is to attend a psychologist yourself, both for support in living with, and parenting, a struggling teenage son and for some advice and guidance about how you may be able to prompt him to take the steps to help himself.

With your own support system, you too might find the hope that things can get better.

My two-year-old is lashing out all of a sudden. Could his change in attitude be because I'm weaning him?

Q. I have a little two-year-old boy of my own and mind two others similar in age. I am trying to wean him from breastfeeding and he's quite upset by this naturally. Lately he has started to act out of character. He's screaming crying, pushing, slapping and just very aggressive toward the other boy I mind. The other boy is a big, loud character. I think my son may be scared of him. I've tried encouraging them to play, I hug them both, I take them for walks together, do story time with them, but nothing is working. How can I get my happy baby back?

David replies: It can be a real challenge to accommodate the needs of several children at once, especially when they are the same age.

I wonder if your son is just very frustrated with some of the things that are occurring in his life at the moment. There are two main issues, it seems to me, that may be distressing your son; the weaning process and having other toddlers in his space while you are childminding.

Weaning from breastfeeding can be a tricky transition for many children. You have to remember that, at age two, the comfort and nurturing aspect of the breastfeeding may be as important to your son, or more important, than the nutritional value.

Your son is very lucky to have had the opportunity to breastfeed until this age. But, giving up something that is so lovely, can be very hard. The manner in which you are weaning him might might the process easier or harder for him.

For example, if you are approaching the weaning by trying to make a "hard" stop, withdrawing the feeds all in one go during the day, it may be just too much for him to cope with.

It is a much more gentle process to drop a single feed at a time, starting with the one he is least attached to and gradually increasing the number of dropped feeds over time. The emotional connection that breastfeeding offers, may also need to be replaced by other, "special", nurturing time for your son.

Perhaps he is just sad and disappointed that this particularly special, and lovely, closeness that you had enjoyed with him is coming to an end.

The greater independence and responsibility that children gain, as they grow up, can be a great attraction for them. But it is often accompanied by a sense of loss, at what they give up by growing up too. So, it is good for your son to be eating independently, and to have greater responsibility for his food, but I could imagine he misses breastfeeding too.

Because he is two, he isn't going to be able to explain the complexity of the feelings he may have about weaning from breastfeeding. It is much more likely that his behavioural disturbance is a sign of the inner emotional turmoil he may be feeling.

As with all things emotional, it really helps children when we can be warm and empathetic about their distress.

So, even though you are determined to wean him, he may just need you to express a little bit more understanding about the potential impact on him.

A similar approach to the issue with the other boy might also help. It is often difficult for the child of a childminder to accept, and give way to, other children that come into their homes to be cared for.

Remember that you and your son have a close bond, nurtured all the more by the breastfeeding, and so he may be finding it really upsetting to have your time and attention taken up by other children.

Some of the things you have done, like reading to the children, hugging them all, walking with them all, may just remind your son of what he would like to be doing exclusively with you.

So, while you are continuing to childmind, you may need to keep talking to your son about what it is like to have other children in his home, possibly using his toys and relying on you for their comfort too.

If he knows that you understand that it is hard to share you with others he may find it easier to accept having other children in his space.

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