herald

Tuesday 6 December 2016

The Parent Zone: 'My 14-year-old son was attacked and he won't leave the house now'

Bullied children can live in fear
Bullied children can live in fear
The Breakfast Club featured some issues that teens can face as part of growing up

Dealing with the behaviour of a young teen who was beaten up and a little girl who is pretending to be a dog

Q: My 14-year-old used to go out to play all the time - his grades in school were terrible and his behaviour wasn't great, resulting in a few days suspension from school on occasion.

Recently when he was out he was attacked by a drug addict and now he will not leave the house. On the flip side, his grades are fantastic, his school behaviour has improved and his teachers are raving about his new attitude to school.

I'm worrying about him never leaving the house and is this trade-off worth it?

I'm afraid the trade-off isn't worth it at all. I believe your son is experiencing a trauma response to the assault. At age 14, no matter how brazen they may seem, they are only teenagers.

You say the assault was recent so a recovery back to previous functioning can be expected in a few weeks.

If it doesn't happen in six weeks or so, or if his behaviour becomes increasingly anxious and interferes with sleep and appetite, it will be time to get some help.

Let me explain a bit about the trauma response pattern. It will help you and others understand people who have been threatened or assaulted or experienced any event they believe could endanger their life.

When the human brain senses danger it immediately goes into stress mode. There are three stress responses: fight, flee or freeze.

Any one of these helps protect us from any perceived threat to life. If we fight, our muscles get ready to tighten, adrenaline floods the blood stream, respiration gets faster and heart rate increases.

We are then ready to engage in battle and our strength grows much stronger than normal. When we flee, we have the same general bodily reaction but we run away as fast as we can.

When we freeze, the body slows down, we are still, without movement and our eyes and ears become hyper alert to any sight or sound of danger.

These three stress responses are normal. When there is extreme danger, such as what your son has experienced, the bodily response is extreme and can alter the pathways of the human brain.

Sometimes the response is so strong that it results in a post-traumatic response. When this happens the brain is re-programmed to believe there is extreme danger even in situations where there is none.

This is, no doubt, what has happened to your son. He now is afraid to venture outside the house because his brain believes he may be attacked again.

Of course, if there is real danger out there for him his response is entirely proper and you will need to take action to see that he is protected.

If he does not settle down and regain his sense of confidence in going out of the house and engaging in his normal activities, you will need to get him some professional help.

The good news is that this sort of stress response can be treated in a relatively short period of time and is quite amenable to intervention.

Observe him, talk to him, get all the facts and if things don't change in a few weeks, seek help by consulting your GP.

Q: My daughter always wants to pretend she is a dog. She's aged five. She constantly asks her baby brother to be her owner and walk her.

She barks, sticks her tongue out, pants, the works. I am trying to limit it now because she'd play all day long like that if I let her. Should I be worried?

You have no need to worry at all. A five-year-old child with an active imagination and ability to pretend could likely grow up to be an inventor, scientist, creative artist or musician.

It is perfectly normal for a child to use their imagination. In fact, in this day and age of technology and video games I would prefer to see a child who is able to play in a carefree and imaginative way. Now, you do say she plays all day long like that, so I wonder if her play life has become a bit too constricted.

Are you able to distract her from this play activity at times? Can she engage in any other forms of play?

Will she play board games with you? Can you get her to play any other form of imaginative play?

Does she engage in this play activity at inappropriate times and places? There are a lot of questions that need answering before we can come to a decision about being worried or not.

I would ask her teacher if she plays like this in school. It is important to know if she gets along with other children in play outside the house.

Her teacher will be a great source of information and help you know to be worried or not.

I understand your concern but think it is too early to be worried about this. She is five and by the time she is six it may have disappeared.

Have you considered taking her to the shop to pick out some other play object, such as a toy or game or doll?

I also wonder if any of her friends are accepting or rejecting of her play.

If she is getting on fine in school, has friends with whom she can engage in a wide range of play and is not an anxious or unsettled child, you have nothing to worry about.

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

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