That's it for the education Q&A today. Thanks for participating. Our next topic and expert profile will be posted Friday. Please join us again next Tuesday for questions and answers.
This week's expert was Dr. Marshall Korenblum, a child psychiatrist who specializes in the issues of peer pressure, social anxiety and making friends at school.
* Please note this forum is intended only to provide general answers to readers' questions. Those experiencing difficulties should contact their family physician or seek counselling.
Q: My son is soon turning 6, and just started in Grade 1 this year. He has a few friends that I know of. My concern is that he is unwilling to go to his friends' houses for playtimes, instead he's always asking if his friends can come over to our house. When I ask him why he doesn't want to go to their houses, he answers "I don't know." Is is normal to have a good group of friends, but be very shy about going to their houses? He has no concerns about going to school, why houses for playtime?
A: This is indeed a bit of a mystery. It sounds like the beginning of mild separation anxiety, which is not unusual in a 6-year-old. Has he ever slept away at a friend's (or even relative's) house? If so, did anything bad ever happen? If not, he might just be a sensitive kid who, one month into school, is showing a bit of "mummyitis." Fears and phobias commonly appear at this age. Has he watched or heard news reports of kidnappings or the like? Is your neighborhood safe? If these leads are negative, I wouldn't push him to go, but I would accompany him for a few times, and see if you can make him feel comfortable with the experience. If he absolutely refuses, leave it alone and try again in a few months. In the meantime, invite his friends over to your house so you can observe his interactions directly, and get a sense of how shy he really is.
Q: I have a preschooler (four years old) and he is generally well-behaved. The friend he most enjoys playing with is not, and after visits I feel like I have to de-program my son because he starts acting out too. How should I handle this or is it better to end the friendship?
A: I would speak to the parent of the friend and honestly express your concerns. Ask if that parent has noticed any behaviour problems when their child plays with other children. This may strain the friendship with the other parent, but in the long run (if they're a good friend), they will thank you for it.
In the meantime, don't let them play unsupervised. Make sure you are close by so you can intervene if necessary. If things don't change after a few weeks, I would start limiting the contact with the friend.
Q: My daughter and her friends aren't making very good life decisions right now. What is the best way to help your teen make the best choices? Do you go with the "live and learn" approach, or do you need to step in and try to take control of situations?
A: The younger the teen, the more you need to step in, because younger teens really do have poor judgement, due to lack of experience and impulsivity spurred by hormones. If they're older, however, they need to start accepting the consequences of their actions, and you shouldn't rush in to rescue them from themselves.
The bottom line is health and safety -- if you, as their parent feel that their safety is being jeopardized, then you should step in, but only after drawing it to their attention and trying to make it a "teachable moment." Convey (if you can) that you're not just trying to prove who's more powerful, but you're attempting to teach them lifelong lessons about self-care and good judgement.
Q: My oldest child is in Grade 3, and already uses foul language around her friends at school, although not at home. I was told this by another mother and I don't know what to do about it.
A: I don't know what your "culture" is at home, regarding the use of profanities. There are many reasons why a child might swear. Peer acceptance is one of them -- if it's "cool," then it may help them feel as if they belong.
To me, what's more important is how they swear -- i.e., is it being said in the heat of anger and/or in a hurtful or defiant way? If so, it needs to be curbed, and the child encouraged to express their feelings in other ways. If, however, it's simply used as a colourful adjective to tell a story, and because "everyone else is doing it," then I would basically ignore it. It will disappear on its own.
Q: My daughter began senior kindergarten this year, and she's already come home in tears because the other girls "don't want to be her friend." I am shocked this behaviour has started so young. I honestly didn't expect it until middle school. Is this unusual? What can I do? What can I help my daughter do?
A: I share your upset. Most instances of "bullying by exclusion" begin around Grade 3-4 and peak around Grade 6-7. However, we are seeing all sorts of problems starting earlier and earlier. I would call the school immediately both to inform them and to get their take on what's going on. Has this happened to other girls? Are there identifiable bullies in the class? If so, they should be dealt with by the teacher. An even better approach (so that your daughter isn't singled out as "the snitch") would be for the teacher to raise the issue of friendships and inclusion with the class as a whole.
In the meantime, ask your daughter if she has any idea why the girls might be doing this? Nothing justifies hurtful exclusion, but if your daughter lacks social skills, you may be able to help her change any behaviours that are resulting in her being singled out. And of course, tell her that you love her and you will support her in learning how to make friends.
Q: My nephew, who is 9, has been pulled out of the school his three sisters attend. My brother and his wife have decided to home-school him as he has behavioural problems in class and has been sent home on many occasions. He has seen doctors and I am uncertain to the suggestions to my family from counselling. My brother is too busy and my sister-in-law doesn't speak very good English, and I don't think he will be taught that well at home. Do you have any suggestions for this situation?
A: It would be helpful to know what diagnosis the doctors have given your brother and sister-in-law. For a 9-year-old to be pulled out of school is quite serious and not common. If your relatives are too busy or don't understand what's being told to them, why don't you go with them to the next meeting so you can lend support and help advocate for your nephew? In general, I would agree with you -- home schooling should be a very last resort. A child is deprived of necessary social interactions and may also miss out on the full curriculum when they are schooled at home. For a child with behavioural disturbance who can't cope in the regular school system, day treatment would be a better option -- this is a combination of school plus treatment. They will need a child psychiatrist to help refer them.