Saturday 19 October 2019

Dear David Coleman: My son has always been happy but last week after school he was very upset and didn't know why

Do I need to take further action? Stock photo
Do I need to take further action? Stock photo
During peak moments of distress we sometimes have to allow children to calm down alone
David Coleman

David Coleman

Q I am very worried about my 10-year-old son. His dad lives abroad and has not seen him in six years. Until now, my son has been a happy boy. Lately though, he has been having a rough patch. Last week, after school he was very upset and did not know why. He was sobbing on and off. I have checked with school and everything seems fine there. The level of his distress and the fact that I could not console him alarmed me. He is starting to show physical signs of puberty. Do I put these mood swings down to puberty? Could it be that he is overtired? Or do I need to take further action?

David replies: There is rarely a single reason for the complexity of children's emotional responses to situations they find themselves in. It could be that all three of the suggestions you have made about reasons for your son's "rough patch" are relevant.

The key thing in responding to him is not that you have definitive answers for him or yourself (about why he feels so upset), but rather that you are showing him you are doing your best to understand him and his experiences. We do this by trying to put ourselves in our children's shoes and seeing the world as they see it. We then use empathy to express our best guess as to what they might be experiencing.

Empathy helps a child to connect with their own feelings. Many parents can be reluctant to guess at their child's feelings because they worry they may "fuel" the feeling and increase the distress. However, validating a child's feelings is the best way to help them process or deal with those feelings.

So, it is worth exploring any, or all, of the ideas you have about what is contributing to his distress, with him. You might say things to him, like: "You seem really upset every morning before you go to school. I wonder if something is happening in school that is upsetting you."

Or, you might say: "I've noticed you have suddenly grown tall and are starting to get hairs under your arms, maybe your hormones are kicking in and that's why you've been getting upset and moody."

Or, you might say: "You've been really busy the last while. I wonder if you are overtired and if that adds to your feelings, making them stronger and more powerful?"

Empathy statements like these allow him to get new perspectives on his own experiences and, when they fit with those experiences and seem to help explain those experiences, it can be very reassuring for a child.

During the peak moments of his distress it might be hard to help soothe him because the intensity of the feeling is so great. At those times we often have to wait, giving a child space and time to calm down a bit, so that they can attend to us again without the power and force of the feeling blocking them.

Sometimes the time and space needs to be time alone, with no other people around, sometimes it is better for the child to be with an adult, perhaps enveloped in a hug, or having their head stroked. These kinds of physically soothing gestures work really well for some children and can help them to calm down more effectively than any words we might say. Other children however, may not like to be touched and so offering a hug may exacerbate their distress. You will know your own child best and what might work for him.

You might like to try these ideas, and if, for some reason, his distress continues, or his rough patches extend, then it may help to get some professional support for him.

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