Happy relationships have clear boundaries

My 10-year-old son is struggling at school because there are children who bully him. He has been assessed by a psychologist who said he has a learning disability. He can’t comprehend what he reads, and is also very shy and withdrawn. How can I help him and what can he do about this?

Having a learning difficulty and not having sufficient institutional and academic support can make it extra demanding for children to deal with the academic and social challenges incumbent to mainstream school settings.

Usually, children with learning difficulties develop low self-esteem as a consequence of not being able to cope with mainstream school academic expectations. This can be exacerbated by misperceptions of the child as lazy or being labelled as “dumb”. Many already exhausted and uninformed teachers and parents give up and despair as to what the problem is and may shout at the child or punish them. This is counterproductive and often leads to increased behavioural problems.

In response to feeling misunderstood, some children isolate themselves and others become angry.

If these behavioural problems can be seen as a call for help, and they do get helped by a mental health professional, the problem can be alleviated.

Children, by themselves, cannot know what the problem is and why they are lagging behind compared to their peers. So they often suffer in silence for many years.

I am so pleased to hear that you recognised that your child needed help and got the necessary intervention by a trained mental health professional. I would further explore with the psychologist regarding their recommendations, which often includes remedial support at school. There are some mainstream schools that are more inclusive of children with different learning abilities with remedial academic support often included in their curricula.

Regarding the bullying, a child cannot deal with this on their own and the best approach would be to speak to the teacher and principal as to how the entire school can address the problem of bullying together. This is used in many UK schools and is called a whole-school approach, which includes that bystanders stand up to bullies.

I would also recommend that you speak to your son regarding ways in which he can stand up for himself (most libraries have books on dealing with bullying) as well as encourage him to take up some form of martial arts. The effects of this are two-fold: feeling more competent in being able to defend himself will boost his self-confidence and he will be more able to defend himself in any future bullying situation and often the bullying will stop.

I think it is also important that he hangs out with another group of supportive peers, so that he is not isolated and therefore cannot be victimised as easily.

My husband does not want to pay for maintenance since he divorced me. My children are suffering and miss their dad but I am very angry with him and I tell them that he is not a good dad and never was, to help them accept the situation.

For a child, their family is their whole world and a relatively intact family with reliable parents or caregivers allows them to feel safe, loved and protected.

This environment enables more healthy emotional and psychological development which leads to a stable sense of self and more healthy adult relationships. When the containing family system is shattered through divorce or otherwise, it can interfere with their cognitive and emotional development.

However, the manner in which parents manage the divorce process as well as post divorce co-parenting arrangements helps the child cope significantly better with this destabilising time and adjust to a new family structure.

If the parents are constantly at war with each other or do not have an amiable relationship, the children feel even more disturbed and are torn between having to cope with their own emotional turmoil as well as the ongoing turmoil between their parents. If they are also expected to choose a particular parent’s side, this engenders significant anxiety for them and can lead to all kinds of psychological issues later in their lives.

I would suggest that you find a way to communicate with your ex-husband that your children’s needs are to be prioritised and that you both need to find a way to make co-parenting more co-operative and considerate of your children’s developmental and emotional needs. I recommend that you contact The Parent Centre in Wynberg and consult one of their counsellors for parent sessions.

Also, please seek legal advice (try the legal aid clinics at universities including UWC) regarding parental maintenance obligations.

How do I deal with stress that I feel in relation to my family (of origin). They want me to be there for them and help them all the time. I try my best but I am not always able to and feel really bad and guilty about this. I sometimes don’t even want to go to family gatherings because I feel so angry and upset with them and know they just want me there to use me for whatever they need.

Although you say you feel angry and upset about your family members using you, it is clear that it is very hard for you to unhook yourself from this pattern of allowing them to exploit you.

It is very difficult to cut ties with our families of origin, however, perhaps you could find a way to set more clear limits with them.

Moving from a familiar pattern of relating, although it is dysfunctional and miserable, into an unfamiliar way of being can be challenging but necessary if you want to break this habitual family dynamic that’s been draining you.

Asserting yourself in small ways, perhaps first with others that you are not so afraid of losing contact with can help boost your confidence in doing this with those more close to you.

Sometimes it can be helpful to first role-play this at home with a partner or a friend so that you can feel more confident in the actual situation by learning to assert yourself in saying “no” and setting clear boundaries.

The poet Robert Frost once wrote, “Good fences make good neighbours” and indeed relationships are healthier and happier when there are mutually respectful and clear boundaries.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column. You can write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za Send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.