Sunday 26 January 2020

Ask the expert: How can I get through to my nine-year-old without yelling?

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

The parenting expert on how to get through to a nine-year-old who is a disaster getting ready in the mornings and how to explain to your children that the beloved family pet has to be put down.

Question: We have three children, aged nine, four and two years. Our issue is with our nine-year-old.

No matter what we ask him to do he seems to forget, or needs multiple reminders. Getting him ready and out in the mornings is a disaster. It is easier with the younger ones! I try to be calm but his lack of concentration is so frustrating.

I find the only thing that works is when I lose my temper and get mad. He jumps to attention then. After roaring at him, though, I feel great remorse because this is not how I want things to be. Is there a better way?I can almost perfectly visualise the scene you allude to in the mornings as you try to get yourselves and three children ready to go out to work, to school and to crèche.

David replies: In many ways it sounds typical, and yet you are saying that your eldest son seems to be in some way different to your other children. You do seem very clear that he has even more difficulty than the younger ones paying attention to you.

I do wonder what he is like in school? Does he face the same challenges with his attention and concentration there? It is well worth discussing this with his teacher to find out what he is like in the classroom.

If his inattention, lack of concentration and forgetfulness are replicated in school then it is possible that he might have something like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

I am rarely a fan of labelling children, but that is not to say that it can't be very helpful to have a better understanding of them and their needs. So, if his inattentiveness is visible at home and school it might be worth your while seeking a fuller assessment in relation to something like ADHD.

However, irrespective of whether or not he has ADHD, you still need to be able to manage him and get yourselves through the mornings without a major confrontation.

It may seem obvious, but are you giving yourself and him enough time in the morning? Even getting up a quarter of an hour earlier may give you or him the extra time that might reduce the pressure or stress.

You might want to think about whether, in fact, the difficulty is with his concentration or with paying attention in the first place. For your son, for example, it may be more about the threshold that sounds must reach before they pierce his consciousness.

You may find that he is fully concentrated on whatever else he is doing and that he just doesn't shift his concentration to you to focus on what you are saying.

Lots of children fall into the habit of ignoring attempts by their parents to get their attention. Your son may have learned that the point at which you enforce your demand or your request, is only when you are in front of him shouting.

He may have unconsciously decided that there is no need to attend to you, or respond to you, until you give him no option by 'roaring' at him.

So you need to let him know that you mean business from the first time that you make a request. The only way to do that is to follow up your request with some kind of action, like physically leading him through the task you have asked him to do.

So make sure you have your son's attention (getting him to look at you is usually a good indicator) and make your request clearly. Get him to repeat back what it is that he has to do. Then, monitor and assist him in doing what you have asked him to do.

While this does take time, it is much less frustrating than continuously asking, reminding and reprimanding our children when they don't do what we need them to do.

You should find that your patience increases and your need to shout and roar reduces dramatically.

Having a visual reminder, like a chart, or a list of tasks, may also help him to keep track of what he has to do. If it is possible, for a few weeks, divvy up the adult tasks, so that you or your husband has the time to devote to your eldest.

I'd hope that if your son gets this kind of dedicated coaching, in what he has to do in the mornings, consistently, over time, he will learn it better, so that he is more focused and needs less direction and reminding from either of you.

How will I explain to our three children that our beautiful dog is going to have to be put down?

Question: I have three children aged four, six and nine and they all adore our family dog. The dog has been a member of our family before even the children and they have all grown up with her and love her to bits. I brought her to the vet last week because she seemed off her food only to be told she has cancer! With her age and condition she is going to die. The vet recommended that we put her out of her misery.

I am devastated at the thought of not having our beautiful dog, she is so integral to our family, but how am I going to break this news to the children?Pets do, indeed, have a very special place within families. Invariably, everyone becomes attached to pets and their death can have a hugely significant impact on children and parents alike.

David replies: The first thing you may have to do is to allow your own shock at your dog's illness to register. It sounds like her sickness has come somewhat out of the blue.

Before you address the issue with the children, it will help you to begin to process your own feelings about your dog's imminent death. It is not that you have to have your own feelings packaged neatly, but if you are to support your children, emotionally, you will need the space and energy to do so.

You will create that space and energy for your children's emotions by acknowledging your own feelings and allowing yourself the opportunity to express them.

Given that you know that your dog will inevitably die, either of natural causes or with assistance, then you would be wise to let your children know how sick she is and that she will die soon.

Giving them some advance warning of her death will give them a bit more time to process it. So, if you intend to bring the dog to the vet to have her put down, then you might want to wait for a few days or a week, if she is not in great pain right now.

It is impossible to predict the reaction of the children, but you can probably assume that they will be upset. The strength of their upset may be related to their personal connection to, and relationship with the dog and their understanding of the permanent nature of death.

This is the time to simply be warm and understanding as their grief begins to hit.

Try to acknowledge how they feel, without judging it and being careful not to minimise or dismiss it. When the time comes for your dog to die then I think it might be helpful for your children to see her dead body, before removing or burying her remains.

Even though it can be a very painful experience for everyone in the family, it will at least be a shared experience.

All of the children and yourselves will see that your dog has indeed died and so when she is then physically gone from your family, the nature of death might make more sense.

As you try to explain to the children, who are quite young, about her death, try to avoid using euphemisms like 'she is sleeping forever now', or 'we've lost her'. These kinds of phrases may confuse your children, who could, for example, then get anxious themselves about falling asleep (in case they don't wake up).

Describe death, practically, about how your dog's heart has stopped beating and so she can't breathe and move any more. If it fits with your own beliefs you might like to describe how her body is dead but her spirit may well continue in a doggy heaven.

The concept of the irreversibility of death is most often only understood by children older than seven years of age, so your younger children may continue to talk as if your dog will come back. You may need to repeat your conversations about how your dog can't come back.

Don't be afraid of letting your children feel the sadness. They may indeed feel bereft and distraught. This is a time for lots of empathy, comfort and reassurance that at least your beloved dog isn't hurting any more.

Even though it is a painful experience for everyone, it can be a very powerful, good learning experience for your children to know that they can get through the grief.

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