Q&A Questions with the Psychologist

Questions for the PCA Psychologists… A New Column

Going forward, we at PCA thought it would be fun & helpful to share examples of parent questions posed to our psychologists during Call-In Time, & our responses. Don’t worry, nothing will be shared that is personal, unique, or identifiable. Rather, the questions will be notable for the common chords they strike in many of us, along with our effort to share practical feedback. 

 Q: “ It’s MCAS time & my son is having stomach aches, headaches, & other ailments. I suspect this may be stress, but what should I do?”

A: First, talk to your pediatrician so that medical causes are ruled out. Your doctor will also ask questions to ensure that your son is hydrated, sleeping enough, eating normally-- the basic functions that can also cause ailments you describe, but which can go awry during test prep times. Once a medical diagnosis is ruled out, then it’s fairly safe to assume that these symptoms are stress related. Did you know that requests for mental health services peak during MCAS prep times? So your child’s reactions to the pressure, anxiety, fear of failure, & fear of not comparing well to peers are quite common. There’s also the contagion aspect of MCAS stress: peers & teachers alike are experiencing collective anxiety, & this rubs off on parents & family members too. Given the contagion, think of this as needing a family-wide intervention, the goal being to increase everyone’s tolerance for dealing with stress and to maintain perspective. MCAS’ become exaggerated in importance and so it’s vital for you as a parent to communicate that they are not the final or only word in your estimation of your child’s worth or abilities. Continue to communicate this balanced view, while also introducing your son to the notion of relaxation strategies. Start by helping your son identify what works to calm and soothe himself. Make a family game of identifying & broadening everyone’s stress-reduction repertoire. Reinforce using these strategies, even for a few minutes a day. You are teaching your son the lifelong art of self-soothing and this will follow him wherever he goes. There are future MCAS’ & stressors aplenty to come! Unintended consequences: you’ll be tackling not just your child’s stress-induced reactions, but yours & the rest of your family’s as well! Stress management self-help books & CDs abound, or call for a Consultation from one of our Primary Care Psychologists.

—PCA in Pediatric Primary Care

Q: “My high school senior will be hearing from colleges soon. I fear how she’ll handle rejections & comparisons with her classmates. What can I do if/when this happens?”

A: Don’t you wish you could shield your child from all disappointments? Senior year is a whopper of a test of self-esteem & resilience, but ironically our teens are not nearly as equipped for these challenges as they will be when they’re even a little older. It helps if you demonstrate faith in your daughter’s potential for resilience, even if hers’ is not robust yet. Resilience is also something you will need to model & reinforce in your child. The tricky balance to strike is to share in your daughter’s pain & disappointment but communicate that it will pass, & do NOT share in her belief that the rejection makes her unworthy, less-than, or doomed to mediocrity or failure. Periodically make note, but not persistently, of those who had similar college disappointments or took an indirect route to eventual personal success. Share your own esteem rattling experiences, your wandering paths, & the varied definitions of success. Help your daughter be compassionate with herself just as she would be for a respected friend. Encourage engagement in things that she values & which bring her pride, & distract her from this overly charged moment. Intentionally create relaxing moments & family bonding time, showing her that love & pride are not defined by single accomplishments. Feel free to call for a Consultation with our Psychologist.

—PCA at Pediatric Associates of Medford

Q: “ We are recently divorced. There’s certainly tension but overall we’ve been able to be civil around the children. Initially my 7 y.o. son left without a problem to stay over with his dad, but there was an incident this week where he had a meltdown when his dad came to get him-- my son was screaming that he didn’t want to leave. Do we give in, or do we demand strict adherence to our visitation schedule? Should I worry that there’s a big problem at his dad’s house?”

A: First off, if the relationship between your son & your ex was safe & okay to date, then there’s likely no bad-guy & no basis for catastrophic thinking. More likely, your son is expressing what most children his age are thinking & feeling: how come I have no say in all this; why can’t you see I want it to be as before; why can’t I just stay home? So though a consistent visitation schedule is certainly important for all of you & will gradually promote his feeling that his world is predictable & safe, sometimes your son will simply need his little voice heard & exceptions allowed. At his age, exceptions must be defined as time limited, with a rationale behind it, & with a mutual agreement that the next visit will be approached with certain choices but not the option to avoid altogether. “Dad & I agreed that today you can stay here & dad will visit with you here. We realize how upsetting this is for you. This also teaches your dad & I that we all have to put some thought into what choices you can have to make this more comfortable for you while you’re adjusting to this big change. Dad & I want you to spend lots of time with each of us. So let’s decide together-- next time, when you will go with dad, do you prefer to go straight to dad’s house, or go to the park first?” Take home message: voice empathy & cooperative problem-solving; being consistent is not the same as being inflexible; give your child some sense of limited control & choice to ease their minds & ease the struggle. Feel free to consult the Psychologist for more guidance about how to navigate this difficult time, & what to anticipate.

—PCA at Pediatric Associates of Medford

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