Sunday 18 March 2018

Dear David Coleman: I'm worried how my daughter with DCD will cope in secondary school

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Photo posed by models
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I'm concerned about our 12-year-old daughter who has developmental coordination disorder (DCD). She often refers to herself as a geek and has struggled with knowing she has DCD. She has been bullied in the past. She is a great artist, writer, and reader, and we strongly encourage her to develop her skills in these areas. Her peers would acknowledge her artistic side but she tells us this gives her little leverage in the schoolyard. How can we best prepare her self-confidence for secondary school?

David replies: Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) is often a hidden challenge that neither parents, nor the child, is aware of. I think it's good that both you and she are aware of it. Sometimes it is a bit of a double-edged sword for children to know that they have some kind of 'definable' difficulty.

On balance, though, I think more children appreciate knowing that there is something up with them, than not knowing it. At the very least it might explain to children why they behave in certain ways, why some things seem especially hard for them, or why other children react to them as they do.

It might be worth bringing your daughter back to the occupational therapist (OT) who assessed her to talk further about the meaning that the DCD diagnosis has for her. Perhaps she now feels labelled as "lesser" than her peers, or "disabled" in a way that differentiates her.

While these are understandable reactions, it will definitely help her if you and/or the OT can help her to focus on the positives of understanding that she has DCD.

You are right to be worried about the transition to secondary school. An interesting piece of research, published just last year, concluded that children with DCD, especially girls, had increased risk of difficulties with mental health and social relationships in late adolescence compared to their peers.

This vulnerability was increased when the children experienced bullying, had poor social communication skills, and low self-esteem.

Unfortunately your daughter has already experienced bullying, possibly in the form of exclusion or isolation. This alone, even without DCD, could affect her self-esteem negatively and could lead her to doubt her ability to get on with her peers.

I do hope that you and her current school have been able to help her resolve the bullying. Get in touch with the learning support team within the secondary school she is due to go to, to alert them to your daughter's enrolment and to make sure they will have the necessary supports in place. Let them know too she might need some help with the social aspects of school.

Assuming that bullying isn't a current issue then your focus needs to be, rightly, on building her self-esteem. So, even if she doesn't rate her creative abilities as offering her any social capital in the schoolyard, they are still abilities that are worth acknowledging.

Self-esteem, in my view, takes account of two core constructs, our sense of being lovable and our sense of being capable. Perhaps with the DCD your daughter has also felt less able than her peers with sports or other physical activities. So, focusing on her other talents is absolutely the way to go.

The bullying will probably have affected her sense of being lovable, since it may have given her a powerful message of rejection instead. This may be harder to counteract, but it is worth investing in. See if you can identify any children in her class that she might be able to befriend, singly. Meeting such friends, one-to-one, may be more effective in allowing the friendships to deepen, than having several girls at a time over where the potential for them to pal together, without including your daughter, increases.

Then look to see if there are any clubs or societies that she could join where her skills might be really valued, as this might also open up new social opportunities that could sustain her next year. Knowing she can make new friends could give her the boost she needs to face the challenge of the social milieu of first year in secondary school.

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