Wednesday 13 December 2017

David Coleman: How do I help my son get over his bullying?

Photo by Thinkstock
Photo by Thinkstock
David Coleman

David Coleman

My nine-year-old boy has been bullied at swimming and hurling and lately at school, all by different groups of children.

He doesn't have a best friend and while he goes to hurling and football he is not great at it and I don't think he likes the sports that much.

He doesn't quite fit in with the boys in his class, and there are only three. When they pick teams they don't want to pick him.

His self-esteem and confidence have hit the floor.

There is one boy, in particular, in school who shoulders him, makes fun of him, stands in doorways and won't let him past.

We think the bullying has stopped but I know my son is still anxious.

He is pale and complains of dizziness and pain in his tummy.

How can I build up his confidence and make sure this won't happen again?

How can I make him more assertive and yet not change the very gentle and caring lad that I love with all my heart?

David says: IT SOUNDS like you made a very good intervention by going in to talk with the principal of the school and the parents of the other boy. With luck that particular issue of him picking on your son will have been resolved.

I think you are right to focus, now, on giving your son the skills to be assertive and resilient.

It is always hard to see, or hear about, our children having a tough time. When our children seem to struggle with this we can worry about them a lot.

Most social groups are formed on the basis of shared interests, or shared goals. So we hang out with like-minded people who seem to be interested in the same things we are, or who like the same things we do.

Part of your son's difficulty is that in a small school he has no choice but to try to befriend the boys in his class, irrespective of any shared interests.

Consequently, since they seem to value things like football skill, then your son may have ended up down at the bottom of the pecking order.

Naturally, that will be hurtful for him as he will feel less able and less acceptable.

Key to building his resilience and his assertiveness is building up his self-esteem. He may be getting a consistent message at school, at hurling and at football, that he is 'no good'. I am sure he cannot ignore the slight of being the only child not picked.

So, when he is forced to measure up to other people's ideals he may feel, himself, that he is wanting. Part of building up his self-esteem is allowing himself to recognise the things that he is good at.

So, spend some time with him identifying his real strengths and abilities, whether his peers value those strengths or not. It may then help to find social activities that suit and fit with his strengths.

For example, if he is more into computing than football then it might suit for him to go to a local CoderDojo, instead of hurling or football training.

Even though he is only nine give him some responsibility at home, either with chores, with helping with cooking or getting messages at the local shop. These kinds of responsibilities allow him to feel valued and needed.

You also need to give him some opportunities to make choices for himself. No matter the outcome of those choices, the aim is help him feel good about the fact that he can choose.

If he makes mistakes (in his choices or just generally) then simply correct them. Use them as a chance to learn from the experience. Try to avoid criticising him or punishing him for mistakes.

It may be hard for him to feel that he is acceptable and lovable (a key part of self esteem) as long as he is getting rejected by his peers at school. So, to balance this, it will really help to find other more positive social activities for him to be part of. It is good for him to be able to make friends based on shared interests.

You also need to give him a consistent message that you believe in him and have faith in him (as well as that you love him to bits).

Good self-esteem makes children resilient and assertive.

They are more able to look other children in the eye, say "no" firmly, walk away proudly from situations or even stand up and fight for what they believe in.

Essentially we are building up their self-esteem so that they believe in themselves.

My daughter (8) is living with a constant fear of vomiting

I have a little girl who is eight years old and, I think, is suffering from emetophobia (a fear of vomiting) and we don't know what to do.

For the past two years she has gradually gotten worse with her constant questions all day long of "I feel sick", "Will I get sick?" or constant talk about others who have been ill.

If someone in the school has been ill, she is in hysterics not wanting to go, in case the person gets sick or passes it on to her and she gets sick.

She sleeps lying with her face by the edge of the bed so if she gets sick she can be sick over the side and still be able to sleep in her bed!

We think it goes back to when herself and her brother had a bad vomiting bug.

After two days of not eating, her brother went into anaphylactic shock (he has an egg allergy) and was rushed to hospital by ambulance, staying for four days.

She did hear us having conversations about how we thought he was dead and how lucky we were.

She got a vomiting bug the following winter but she would not eat for 10 days and it took ages before she relaxed back into eating regularly. Even now she worries in case something is gone off and might make her sick.

I just want her to be a happy eight-year-old with the "normal" worries of an eight-year-old.

I just want my little girl back!

David says: That sounds like it is very stressful for you and for her. With the amounts of bugs and other situations that arise in families, vomiting is all too frequent.

I do think you are on the right track to be linking the start of her fears with the coincidence of her brother going into anaphylactic shock just after he and she had the vomiting bug.

She probably associated the two things.

In her head, she may fully believe that any bout of vomiting could lead to anaphylactic shock. It sounds like it is really important, therefore, to go back and revisit that experience with her.

I think you could talk to her about that time and her memory of what happened.

Try to uncover what sense she made of any comments you made back then about your fears that her brother may have died.

She may believe that it was the vomiting that led to his near death, not the anaphylactic shock.

She may also be misreading her own physical symptoms of anxiety (increased heart rate, flushing, shortness of breath or muscle tension) and think that these are signs that she, too, might be suffering from anaphylaxis.

So, do talk to her about what happened to her brother to make sure she understands that it was an entirely separate and coincidental thing (assuming it was!).

Do remember that she was only six when it happened and so could have easily misinterpreted many aspects of the traumas that occurred.

There are techniques that you can teach her to regulate her breathing to reduce the symptoms of anxiety that arise from the release of adrenalin.

Abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing techniques are very effective at slowing the heart rate and reducing the muscle tension.

As with many fears, a "worry about the worry" can become as problematic as the original feared object or event.

So, your daughter does need help to acknowledge her fears of vomiting and some help to soothe those fears when they arise.

If she feels that you are in any way dismissive, or that you minimise her fear, then she will struggle to accept any reassurance from you. She needs to know that you fully "get" how scared she is before she can believe you when you say that she will be okay.

If after trying these ideas you remain concerned that her phobia doesn't recede then do seek further professional advice and guidance with a clinical psychologist who specialises in working with young children.

Most practitioners should have the skills to help, typically adopting a cognitive behavioural approach.

Irish Independent

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