Tuesday 18 September 2018

Dear David Coleman: My son (9) has always been the funny one, full of life and happy. But lately he's anxious and very clingy

Even small changes in your son's life can lead to him becoming worried
Even small changes in your son's life can lead to him becoming worried
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman answers your parenting questions.

Q My son, age nine, is a great little boy who has always been the funny one, full of life and happy. Over the past 10 months he has, very gradually, become worried about things. I noticed it first with school and pains in his tummy, possibly five or six times since Christmas. However, over the past six weeks or so he has become very clingy to me; wanting to know where I am and not wanting me to go anywhere and leave him. I know there's probably some reason for this, but should I get him help or just see how it goes? Is there a need to be worried?

A I think you are right to guess that there is probably some reason for your son's growing anxiety. Understanding what the reason is could help you to help him deal with it.

It is rare that children's behaviour (like getting unexplained tummy pains, becoming more clingy) changes without some associated change in their lives. Sometimes the "something" that has changed for them may not be clear to parents, since the same "something" might not have impacted our lives.

So, if, for example, there was an issue in school, like academic pressure, or bullying, or losing a friendship, we may have no clue unless they tell us, or a teacher or other parent approaches us.

In other circumstances we might know what has changed, but may have just underestimated the impact on our child. For example, a change in our work circumstances, death of a relative, burglary nearby, friends moving away could all affect our children differently to us.

The most usual thing that brings about anxiety, however, is the introduction of some kind of uncertainty or unpredictability. For some children, even the developmental move into pre-adolescence can spark a shift in how they see and understand the world (perhaps losing some childhood innocence) leading them to experience the world as a more uncertain and changeable place.

Perhaps, as with your son, this uncertainty finds expression in emotional, behavioural or physical ways. This kind of psychological shift from one developmental phase to another can often be quite turbulent.

Tummy pains going to school are often an indicator that your child is worried about something, like being in trouble with the teacher, or an issue with friends, or feeling overwhelmed about the workload. It will be interesting to see how he gets on now that he is back at school, with a different teacher.

Even though it is a new teacher, it's worth checking with them if they notice anything going on for your son, socially or academically during the school day. Similarly, cast your mind back through your family events of the last 10 months to see if there was any issue that might be affecting him.

Since your son is only nine, it may be hard for him to identify the source of his anxiety. It can be helpful to guess out loud, with him, about what you think it might be. Even if you guess wrong, he will appreciate the fact that you are trying to understand his worries.

You also validate his experience of being worried, making it easier then for him to take on board any suggestions you might then make about ways to deal with the anxiety.

If you feel that your efforts to understand and empathise with his worries are not helping him, then do seek professional help. Try to find an experienced child psychologist, play therapist, or child psychotherapist.

In life we rarely will be anxiety free. Our aim is not to have no worries, our aim is to be able to deal with them enough that they don't hamper our lives and prevent us achieving our other life goals.

My five-year-old son loves playing with our dogs but sometimes he can hurt them. Is this common?

Q My young lad is five and he's  a super little fella most of the  time.  He loves playing with our two dogs, but then out of the blue he will hurt the dogs. He then comes in and tells us what he's done, getting really upset that he's hurt them. He's never mean to adults or kids, as far as I know. Can you tell me if this common behaviour? 

A Children can often, inadvertently tease or hurt animals. Sometimes they may, simply, not know how to play nicely with them. They may pull an animal's tail, or roughly push it away, or tempt it with food or snacks that they have no intention of actually giving to the animal.

Responding to this requires training your child how to interact nicely, calmly and gently. This is best done by coaching your child, playing with them and the dog together, showing how to pet, stroke or cuddle the dog. If you see them hurt the dog, then take them away from the animal.

Explain that when they can play nicely, they will be allowed to play again, but not until they are ready to be kind to the dog. It may not be wise to let him play unsupervised.

In more extreme cases, where the hurting is more regular, cruel or intentional, it can be an indicator of emotional distress or upset for the child.

Cruelty to animals in childhood can be a precursor to lots of problems in adulthood.

Your son, however, sounds like he just needs your guidance and your vigilance as he learns to play nicely all the time.

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