Life Parenting

Sunday 19 August 2018

Dear David Coleman: My son was abused and now behaves badly

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David Coleman

David Coleman

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

Q. I recently separated from my abusive partner. Before I left him, my eldest son, aged seven, had become verbally abusive to people. I believe my partner contributed to my son's behaviour problem, as he was abusive to the children as well. My son has an ongoing speech delay, lacks confidence and has low self-esteem. He's going to school but hates it. I have noticed that when he's not in school his behaviours improve. I don't know what to do, should I remove him from school or leave him there? I don't know what to do now. Help me please.

David replies: It sounds like there is a lot going on for you and your children. Even though the separation from your ex-partner may be a difficult process, I could imagine that it will prove to be a very positive experience for your family, as it gives you and the children an opportunity to heal and to live, free from abuse.

You don't describe what kind of abuse you and your son suffered from your ex-partner, but in many ways it doesn't matter. Whether it was emotional, physical or sexual abuse, it will have had a huge impact on you and your son.

The different kinds of abuse can sometimes add additional layers of complexity in terms of their specific impact, but any or all of them could be responsible for your son's lack of confidence and low self-esteem. Similarly, if your son witnessed, or experienced a lot of verbal abuse from his dad, then that might also explain why he now verbally abuses others.

You also mention that your son has an ongoing speech delay. Have you had that assessed recently? As part of any assessment of his speech, have you considered having his hearing checked? If your son has hearing problems, then it might be affecting his ability to understand what is being said to him and also his ability to express himself clearly.

Receptive, or expressive language difficulties can be enormously distressing and frustrating for children, leading to a range of acting-out behaviours that can include verbal aggression.

Speech and language difficulties can also have a very detrimental effect on children's self-esteem. Even though the language difficulties might not be due to any kind of learning difficulties, children can feel like they are not as smart as their peers. If your son compares himself negatively with others, it may also explain why he doesn't like going to school.

What is clear, from what you describe for your son, is that his situation is complex and so, consequently, he may need several kinds of support or intervention.

Before making a decision to remove him from school, I do think you need to meet with his teacher and the school principal. You need to discuss his speech delay with them, to see what their understanding is, and to check what kind of support they are able to give him in school.

You also need to check how the other children treat him. It may be that he is getting teased for his speech and that this is also contributing to his dislike of school.

The final issue to discuss with his teachers is his overall academic attainments in school. Even though his speech problems are not necessarily due to learning difficulties, it might be worth discovering if he does need extra learning supports too. His school can request help from the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) for this.

Once you have clarity about any effect that school, or the demands of school, may be having on him, you can turn your attention to the impact of the abuse that he suffered from his dad.

Even if he was treated badly by his dad, he may miss him a lot since the separation. His emotional world may be quite upended by both the abuse and the separation. Given his age, a therapeutic intervention, like play therapy or art therapy, might be a really helpful way for him to begin to process the likely complicated feelings he has about his dad.

Finally, look for as much emotional and practical support for yourself as possible, from friends, family or agencies like Women's Aid. You, too, have had a very turbulent time and so you may be under huge pressure currently.

The more you feel minded, the more you will be able to effectively mind your son.


My daughter is tone-deaf but loves singing.  Should I tell her? I'm worried she'll be teased

Q. My eight-year-old daughter likes to write her own pop songs and wants to join the school choir. However, it's obvious to me, as a musician, that she is tone-deaf. How do I break this to her gently? Or do I just go ahead and let her join the choir and quickly be identified as the drone in the group? I do like to encourage her in the things she is interested in but I feel it would be disingenuous of me to encourage her in this. I don't want her to end up hurt, either, with her peers pointing out to her that she can't sing.

David replies: There are so many stories, from adults, who never had the confidence to sing throughout their lives because they were told, often with just a single comment, that they couldn't sing as a child. If you tell your daughter she is tone-deaf, I think you will destroy what could be a wonderful and fulfilling aspect of her life.

I know you seem to think she will be told by her peers that she can't sing, but I am not sure this is even the case. Even if they do, which do you think would have the more long-term impact for your daughter, being told by her mother she can't sing, or being told by her peers she can't sing?

As you point out, she loves to sing, to the point that she writes her own songs, aged just eight. What will happen to this after you've told her she can't sing? I could imagine she may never sing again, at home or anywhere else.

I'm intrigued by your assertion that, as a musician, you can confidently determine, or diagnose her, as tone-deaf. Maybe your expectations for your daughter are unusually high.

It is funny how we seem to see singing as a skill that needs to be intrinsically present and fully developed from the outset, unlike other skills that we are happy to accept may be woefully underdeveloped and require lots of practice.

For example, if your daughter started gymnastics, you wouldn't expect her to be supple at first. You wouldn't even expect her to be able to tumble, never mind the more complex moves. However, you'd happily bring her to a gymnastics class if she seemed interested and engaged by it.

If she played tennis and regularly served into the net, would you tell her she can't play tennis, or would you suggest more practice, or that she go for tennis lessons?

Our skill at the activity will only increase when we are taught, coached and practice. The same is true with singing. True tone-deafness affects a very small proportion of the population. But even if a child struggles with pitch, or holding a note, it doesn't mean that will always be the case.

If your daughter can't "hold a tune" at the moment, then it does mean she'll possibly have to work harder than a child who seems to naturally be able to do this without instruction. So rather than putting your daughter off singing (potentially for life!) maybe you could offer to support her in learning to sing better.

I don't see why it would be disingenuous of you to encourage your daughter to continue to love singing. It might be disingenuous to tell her she is great, if it is the case that she has lots to learn. However, you can certainly acknowledge that this is something that she seems to love and that you'd like to help her with.

If you are a musician then maybe you can coach her yourself? Although, from your query, your current attitude towards her singing ability suggests that you might find it hard to approach this in a positive way. You might be better off letting someone else work with her.

If she wants to join the choir then I think you should let her join the choir. I am sure the teacher who runs the choir deals with children of lots of mixed ability. Hopefully the teacher is someone who loves singing and loves children and sees that their job is just to encourage all the children that want to sing to sing as well as possible.

Maybe you need to recalibrate your expectations for your daughter, rather than cut off a potentially rewarding pastime that could be joy for her throughout her life.

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