Sunday 23 October 2016

'My five-year-old is so anxious he won't try anything new, even if I'm by his side'

My son is five years old and has severe anxiety going to do any new activities, including summer camps, swimming lessons and football - even if I am staying for the duration of the activity.

I have researched a number of methods to try and help him relax and enjoy himself but nothing has worked. Do you have any advice?

Some children are anxious by nature and hesitant about approaching new situations. You say your son is having "severe anxiety".

This is a cause for concern and intervention may be necessary from a professional. The good news is that anxiety in children, adolescents and adults is among the easiest problem to resolve.

I am glad you have used methods to help your son relax. I wonder if you have taught him a "belly breathing" technique. The first intervention for anxiety is to correct the rate, pace and depth of breathing.

There are a lot of breathing exercise for children you can find on the internet. I strongly suggest you find one you think will be helpful and teach it to your son.

It will be helpful to try and find out what your son is thinking about when he is anxious. He may have fears of being hurt, or of you being hurt or not coming back to get him.

These are common causes of anxiety in children and the latter is associated with separation anxiety. Although most parents try to reassure the child that there is no need for anxiety, this usually isn't helpful.

A more effective approach is to discover what the child is thinking about that causes them anxiety and to coach them through the best ways to deal with the unexpected. Sometimes staying with the child only makes the problem worse.

It can be helpful to control your own worry and anxiety about your son, make your departure casual, with a kiss and little hug and just walk away, not looking back.

If you have serious concerns about your son's anxiety it is best to talk to your GP who can advise you about how you may proceed.

The outcome of treatment of anxiety difficulties in children is usually excellent if started early enough. If it is ignored and doesn't go away, it may well get worse and worse. Don't be afraid of asking for advice. Speak with your son's teacher to find out what she thinks.

A positive outcome is usually experienced with advice and sometimes professional intervention.

I have twin boys, aged seven, who are completely different. I need advice on how I can help one improve his concentration. He is very absent-minded and homework time is painful.

No twins are going to be born with the same temperament. Although they may look alike, you can be sure they will be different in terms of their personality development and cognitive abilities.

There are a lot of factors that influence attention and concentration. Among them are the child's inborn abilities, the relationship between the child and the parents, the relationship between the child and the teacher, the nature of the homework, the amount of homework and a host of other factors revolving around family life, general health and motivation.

It is sometimes quite difficult to sort all this out in any meaningful way.

At the age of seven, a child can be expected to sustain their attention for a period of around 30 minutes, providing the stimulus requiring attention is sufficiently interesting and engaging.

If the homework being assigned to your child is below their level of ability, meaning they have already learned the content and mastered it, they may lose interest in completing it. They will wonder why they are being given a task they already know so well.

On the opposite end of the scale is the possibility that the homework is above the child's level of ability and their lack of concentration is a result of struggling so hard to learn something that is just difficult.

You say that your child is absent-minded. Do you mean that he forgets simple directions you give to him? Do you mean he misplaces things or loses things or forgets to bring home important papers from school?

Traits like this can be a sign of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If this is a pervasive part of your child's behaviour then you should talk to his teacher and see if he or she has noticed the same in class.

If so, then an assessment may be needed to rule out ADHD. Be mindful that at any age, a child can seem distracted, inattentive or absent-minded and it can all be within normal limits. Don't jump to alarming conclusions, just observe and talk to the teacher.

You can help your child by breaking down homework time into smaller units. Maybe 10 minutes of homework followed by a five-minute break will assure that the homework gets done. Homework at age seven should take about a half an hour to complete, on average.

Is the teacher assigning more homework than the child can complete within a half hour? There are a lot of things to be thinking about, but careful observation, a talk with teacher and a helpful chat with your son will probably reveal the source of the problem.

David is a psychologist; send your questions to davidcarey@herald.ie





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