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I’m a child psychologist

Jul 10, 2023Jul 10, 2023

ALL parents want their children to be happy.

But once they go through the school gates, what if their lives become a misery?

As kids head back to class after half-term, problems might be heightened and fears more intense.

Child psychologist and mum-of-two Emma Kenny knows all about the worry that comes with being unhappy in class.

Emma says: "When children find school life difficult, they don't always have the confidence to express their struggles.

"They fear they will be seen as a disappointment, or be punished for their poor attitude.

"The pressure to perform and fit in can leave some kids finding academic life both toxic and troubling.

"While school unhappiness is something the vast majority of children will experience at certain points in their education, with the right support the vast majority of issues can be overcome."

Here, Emma reveals the unexpected warnings that could mean your child is hating school, and how to tackle them.

RED FLAG: No more birthday party invites — As parents, our weekends are often spent ferrying youngsters to birthday parties. But if the invites have dried up, it could be a sign that school has become difficult.

Feeling unpopular in our formative years is an incredibly painful emotional state to experience.

Kids who are lonely often internalise this type of rejection, believing there must be something wrong with them.

They feel too embarrassed to voice concerns to those closest to them, for fear their beliefs will be confirmed.

HOW TO HELP: If you recognise your child may be feeling isolated, offer a space to discuss their feelings and reassure them of their worth.

Think of any interests they may wish to pursue, where other kids of their age will be present.

Introducing them to other children who do not attend their school can be a positive thing — and with the happiness of having new interests and other friends, they will start to like school again.

RED FLAG: Recurring tummy trouble — Some children will experience headaches, stomach aches or other physical symptoms in the morning before school.

This could be a stress response because they are dreading it.

If your youngsters are taking an increasing number of sick days, or being regularly sent home unwell, it can be indicative of them struggling, with the worry bringing on physical symptoms, such as nail biting or bedwetting.

HOW TO HELP: Make a note of the frequency of these symptoms and the days they fall on.

This may help you gauge if there are particular subjects or activities that trigger these reactions and you may find they are only ever unwell during term time, or certain days.

If this is the case, make sure you’ve got a routine in place with your child as consistency makes them feel secure at home, even if they’re struggling at school.

Next, encourage physical activity like bike rides and playing in the park as exercise is proven to help bust stress.

Also get them checked by your GP to make sure there are no physical issues.

RED FLAG: Every evening spent on homework — Spending all their free time buried in school books means there is a chance your child may be struggling.

You may feel proud of how hard they are studying, but this intensity maybe be more to do with perfectionism and fear of failure, than enjoying school life.

HOW TO HELP: Make sure your child understands they deserve breaks where they can socialise with their mates or siblings, take part in fun activities and have quality time with the family.

When your child is struggling, it's like watching a pot that's about to boil over and you need to intervene before it spills.

Make sure they understand that taking a break is not a failure, but a clever strategy to recharge and regain focus.

Praise them when they choose to take a break — this will reinforce that it's a positive action.

This will help them gain a sense of perspective, take away pressure of perfectionism and reduce their stress levels.

RED FLAG: Naughty behaviour — When children are struggling academically, they often subconsciously "act out" to distract from the problems they are having.

This is doubly destructive because the reaction they often receive is unsympathetic and disciplinary, by teachers and from you as a parent, leaving them feeling even more unhappy.

HOW TO HELP: Instead of reacting in anger, should you notice their behaviour is becoming an issue, be empathetic. Opening a line of communication where they feel supported and understood pays dividends.

You can work as a team, focusing on positive solutions such as getting a tutor or making sure you sit down together each day to complete homework.

But remember, these measures should go hand-in-hand with positive reinforcement. Praise their efforts when they are well behaved. Above all, stay patient and keep the dialogue open.

RED FLAG: You discover secret stashes — Has your high-school-aged child developed bad habits that seem out of character and are problematic?

Finding a vape in their school bag, a bottle of alcohol in their wardrobe or noticing they are staying out past their curfew could suggest struggles.

Kids who get involved in risky behaviour tend to do so because they are finding elements of their life unfulfilled, or are feeling a level of peer pressure that means they engage in negative behaviour for a sense of belonging.

Younger kids may stash chocolate or sweets because they feel a sense of ownership and control over their treats.

Secondly, they may fear being judged or criticised for indulging in too many sweets, so hiding them provides a sense of security and freedom from potential disapproval.

HOW TO HELP: You are the first line of defence where your children's unhappiness is concerned, so never underestimate the importance of "noticing" when your child appears to be struggling, as this is where positive change can begin.

Take the way they feel seriously, help them to problem solve and think out strategies that may make a difference to their daily life. This will reassure them you are on their side.

It's essential to ensure your child doesn't feel attacked, judged or isolated when addressing them on discovering something like this.

Open communication is your best ally in a scenario like this, which means you need to plan your conversation in advance.

Think about the main points you want to discuss and the message you want to convey.

RED FLAG: Change in diet — Have your child's eating habits changed?

No matter what age they are — the switch up in their diet can be one of the biggest signs they are facing psychological struggles.

Some signs to look out for include a sudden decrease or increase in appetite, extreme weight loss or gain, avoidance of certain foods or food groups, or unusual eating behaviours such as bingeing or purging.

HOW TO HELP: Maintaining a regular routine for meals and snacks is crucial during this time.

Also provide balanced meals and make sure you’re a positive role model by prioritising healthy choices yourself.

Try to involve them in meal planning and preparation to increase their interest in healthy eating and create a positive eating environment that is relaxed and free of pressure.

While you do not want to fixate, or shine a spotlight on their eating issues, you do need to actively use strategies such as these to ensure their behaviour does not become more ingrained and problematic.