Monday 18 December 2017

Dear David Coleman: My nephew is struggling to fit in at school since moving from the city

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David Coleman

David Coleman

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

Q. I'm godmother to two beautiful nephews who are aged nine and 11. The younger boy is being bullied at school. The majority of his homework is frustrating to him and he finds it extremely difficult to concentrate and sit still. The family moved from a rural setting to a big city after the boys had settled in a rural school. I wonder if this affects them? The nine-year-old is cheeky, fidgety, fights with his parents and is disrespectful to grown-ups. Their dad works away from home a lot and their mum is their full-time caregiver. What will help him?

David replies: There are a few things that you might want to discuss with the boys' parents if you feel they are opening to listening and hearing what you might have to say.

It does sound like the family's move to the city has been a difficult enough transition for the boys. It may be that the younger boy hasn't settled in his new school. Certainly if he is being bullied there, it will be very hard for him to settle.

Have his parents been in to the school about the bullying? Bullying alone could be the source of a lot of his challenging behaviour. Many children feel a turbulent mix of powerlessness, poor self-worth and real anger in response to being bullied.

It is very common for that anger and powerlessness to be acted out in their relationships at home, where children may try to be very controlling and may even be aggressive or badly behaved.

In essence, this misbehaviour and anger could be displaced. In reality they'd like to be angry with the bully, but feel powerless to do so and, instead, may try to show the anger in other places and with other people. Do encourage his parents to deal with this bullying.

It is very hard to deal with the feelings associated with being targeted in this way, while the bullying is continuing. His parents need to help him to ensure it is stopped. Only then can he start to heal.

Once the bullying is stopped, they may want to arrange some therapy for him. Play therapy, at his age, can be an ideal way to process some of the distress, powerlessness and anger.

The other issue that seems very relevant for this same nephew is his distractibility, fidgetiness, struggles with his homework and poor concentration. All of these characteristics may be associated with something like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

ADD (or if he is hyperactive as well, then ADHD) can make relationships at school and at home, very difficult. In school, children with ADD often get labelled as messers or troublemakers because they find it hard to sit still, stay on task and can distract themselves and others.

That distractibility can also frustrate their peers, since it might disrupt the class or specific other children. Annoying their peers can be part of why some children become isolated in school and may even make them vulnerable to being targeted by bullies.

At home, parents too can become frustrated by the same traits, leading to a negative spiral of interaction where parents end up giving out more to their child, who becomes more disillusioned and less willing to cooperate, leading to further conflict and so it continues.

If the school haven't already suggested it, a comprehensive assessment, that can look at the potential reasons for why he struggles with homework, and also can offer some insight into his behaviour and distractibility, would be really beneficial.

Your nephew may need more support at school to be able to stay on task, and to achieve his educational potential. The outcome of an assessment should be able to pinpoint what, if any, support is needed and advise about strategies to help him achieve.

Your younger nephew just doesn't seem happy with life right now. I think if his parents invest in understanding the nature of his difficulties, it might provide them with some clear direction in terms of helping him.

They may also, if they understand him better, find that they can successfully change their approach to parenting him, to increase their positive interactions and reduce any friction that might be there.

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