Our Children, Issues and Answers

My 7 year old son is having trouble getting his homework done. It ends up being a battle between us. He becomes very frustrated and seems like he does not know how to complete the assignment, although he has done the same work in class.

His teacher has never indicated any concern about his work. Could he still have a learning disability?

Yes, but there are also many other possibilities to consider. One is the dynamic between the two of you. Could your son be nervous about meeting your expectations or disappointing you? If the problem is in your relationship, then the best thing would be to pull back and let him do what he can on his own. If he does not complete the work, then he will have to face the consequences at school. If the teacher begins to have concerns about his incomplete homework, she should let you know. You can also call her and ask her to keep an eye on his homework and classwork, and to give you feedback about the quality and consistency of his work. Be sure to ask enough questions to get adequate feedback. Then, follow the teacher’s lead about whether to be concerned or not.

Another thing to consider is what kind of work or what subjects does your son seem to have difficulty completing. Is math harder than spelling? Do written assignments present more of a challenge? Does he have difficulty understanding or following lengthy directions? Does he have similar difficulties with non-academic tasks? Teach him to set the table and see if he can set it on his own the next day. Can he remember how to play a new board game? Can he learn how to play checkers? If you see striking differences in his ability to do various types of activities, this could be a clue about his learning strengths and weaknesses. Discuss your observations and concerns with his teacher and/ or school psychologist. If the concerns seem to warrant specialized help or to need further investigation, they might suggest a learning specialist or a psychoeducational evaluation.

My 12 year old son has been the target of some bullies at school. He has not told me the details, but he has expressed fear and reluctance to go to school. I keep telling him to ignore the bullies, but this doesn’t seem to be good advice. How can I help him?

You need more information. Is he leaving out details to avoid embarrassment, or to protect the bullies from getting in trouble and then protect himself from their consequent retaliation? Give your son your full attention and unconditional acceptance. He should feel totally safe talking with you and not be concerned with judgment or criticism. Do not promise you will not discuss the situation with the school, because you may need to and you don’t want to break a promise and risk your son feeling betrayed.

Your advice to ignore the bullies is a good place to start. Sometimes by not fueling their sense of power they will stop. Have your son figure out discreet ways of avoiding these kids; find a different area to eat lunch, to study, to hang out. Be sure he can identify friends he can be with during his free periods, between classes and after school. See if he can enlist a friend (the more the better) to step forward to address a bully’s taunts. Many of the most successful interventions are done through “bystanders.” Your son’s friend does not need to go head-to-head with the bully, only to make a pointed comment, showing he is not passively going to ignore the bully’s remarks. Something as simple as “would you cut that out?” while walking away could be enough to make a difference. If the friend is too uncomfortable saying something directly to the bully, suggest the friend report the bullying to a trusted adult in the school. Likely, it will also be necessary for your son to report the bullying so the school can take action. If he worries about retaliation, make a plan so it doesn’t have to be obvious the report was made by him. Have your son identify others who might have witnessed the bullying, particularly older kids, those with social power, or adults, who might be able to verify the report without fearing the bully themselves. With enough evidence and verification, the school should take some action to protect your son from further harassment and take steps to punish the bullying.

My 9 year old daughter is not yet showing signs of puberty or asking questions about sexual development, but she has friends who are starting to develop in one way or another. Some of her friends are starting to talk of boys and to dress more with an emphasis on appearance (tighter jeans, higher heels, coordinating jewelry). When and how should I broach the subject of puberty and sexuality with my daughter?

Now is the time! Even if your daughter does not appear to be entering puberty, she is either in the process or will be soon. Puberty begins for most girls within the ages of 8-13. Further, her friends will be discussing what they have heard or learned about sexuality and puberty and your daughter will need to know the facts from you. Schools usually have a puberty education program in the 5th grade. You probably want to address the topic with your daughter before she hears about it for the first time in school.

Use any opening to begin the conversation. If your daughter mentions that one of her friends has a boyfriend, is wearing new clothes, or has developed a new interest, then start discussing changes she will begin to see in her friends and in herself. Assure her that changes are normal and expected. Ask her if any of her friends have discussed menstruation or periods. It’s important to inform your daughter about her period well in advance of her getting it, so she will be prepared and understand what is happening. If you are not sure what to say in your conversation about puberty, then find a book to consult. A good book to start with, especially for girls at the younger end of the puberty range, is The Care and Keeping of You, which is part of the American Girl series. You can use it for ideas about the language to use in your conversation or for reading with your daughter, choosing the sections most appropriate for her age and stage of development. If your daughter is particularly private, you can show her the sections to read by herself and then discuss them with her later.

The onset of puberty and the entrance into Middle School can be stressful for many children. Having a safe haven at home, where they can ask questions and discuss their fears and excitement will pave the way toward a more confident adolescence.

My teenage daughter has just started 10th grade in a new school. She has made some new friends and has been invited to a few sleepovers. At what point is it OK for me to allow her to sleep at a new friend’s house?

My standard advice to parents is not to allow sleepovers, unless you are 100% confident in the supervision. At best, sleepovers are an opportunity to bond with friends, solidify relationships and feel independent of parents. At worst, they are an opportunity to evade a curfew, circumvent parental supervision and take increased, or even dangerous, risks. Even the most well-intentioned parents run into trouble supervising a handful of teenagers. Particularly because you do not know these friends or their parents well, make a compromise with your daughter and arrange to pick her up at her normal curfew.

I have a mantra that I offer parents, a statement I heard from an emergency room physician during a panel discussion we were doing on the dangers of teenage alcohol use: Nothing Good Happens After Midnight. Even if there is no alcohol involved in this sleepover, or other late night event, this mantra is a helpful reminder for parents of teenagers. While it is appropriate to extend certain limits for teenagers (with very careful consideration), parents still need to be continually vigilant and not get complacent about the boundaries necessary to keep their children safe.

Dr. Sadler is a licensed psychologist and a certified school psychologist. She is the Director of Support Services at Hackley School and has a private practice in Hastings-on-Hudson.

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About the Author: Dr. Linda Sadler