My husband and I are worried about our eldest son, who is 12. He started secondary school last September and seemed to settle in easily, making friends and coping well with increased independence.
We were called into school recently to discuss his attitude, which is becoming dismissive, flippant and occasionally rude. He sometimes behaves like this at home and can burrow away from the rest of the family, usually playing virtual games online with his friends. We set limits and ensure he does his school work and enjoys other activities.
His end-of-year school report concerned us because it refers to his lack of revision and lack of engagement, especially in subjects that he has dismissed as being pointless. He is a bright boy who is not applying himself.
He has told us that he has no aspirations in life and, more worryingly, wrote us a note saying that he doesn’t care what happens in life or if it ends. He seems to have the worries of the world on his shoulders, which upsets my husband and me as we have always tried to instil self-confidence and self-worth in our children. We have tried talking to him but he is not forthcoming, which saddens us as we talk openly and encourage showing and sharing emotions.
We want to support our son and help him, or at least understand why he is feeling like this. We want to act now to stop the downward spiral and raise his self-esteem.
While I’m trying to put things in perspective, I am anxious that he is feeling low and could hurt himself or worse. How do you recognise those signs? We love him so much but are struggling to know how to help him.
It is frustrating when you feel that something is not right with your child and they won’t discuss it. I consulted a child and adolescent psychotherapist, Georgina Taylor (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), and she says that much of what you describe suggests “typical changes at the edge of puberty – it would be quite surprising if he didn’t pull away at this stage”. This can be difficult for parents who are used to their children sharing almost everything with them and as he is your eldest, this isn’t something you’ve had to go through before. At this stage, Taylor explains, “the peer group becomes more important”.
However, your son’s feeling that life isn’t worth living needs sensitive exploration. It may be that he has dark thoughts all the time or that he feels life is really difficult. I never believe you should bat away such thoughts.
But because parents are “often the last people a young person wants to talk to”, Taylor asks if there are relatives or family friends he feels close to, who might be able to explore this with him.
Here’s a tip about getting children to open up: don’t ask too many questions and give them space to talk, sometimes by doing a quiet activity together that has nothing to do with “talking”.
When appropriate, it’s also helpful to say: “I am not going to talk, I’m just going to listen.” Young people may also open up more easily in the family car.
You could reply to that note he wrote. Perhaps writing is the medium he wants to use to communicate with you.
Talking to your GP or a school counsellor could help and shouldn’t be seen as a last resort. You could ask your GP to refer you to a local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS)for therapy. If you live in or within easy reach of London your GP could also refer you to the Tavistock Clinic’s Child and Family department – specialists in this field. Its website (tavistockandportman.nhs.uk/care-and-treatment) has plenty of information about talking and feelings for your son to look at.
You might also find youngminds.org.uk has some useful information.
Taylor says your son’s online games may offer clues to his inner world. “Explore which games he’s playing,” she suggests. If they are fantasy games, “The alter egos might make him feel powerful and strong, something he maybe doesn’t feel in real life.”
You asked about “signs”: Taylor advises: “One warning sign is wearing long sleeves even in hot weather or if he doesn’t want to go swimming or do sports – this would be typical if he was physically harming himself.”
Also look out for changes in eating and sleeping patterns. He may also be finding secondary school very different to primary. Which subjects does he find interesting? How does he learn best? We don’t all learn in the same way. He may be being flippant as a cover up for struggling with school work – or it may not interest him. What does? A sign of maturity is knowing what you like and what you don’t.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 22 August 2014.