Q. I'm a single mother with a 13-year-old son. He likes to play piano, read his Bible, and watch television. The problem is, he has no friends. I've always made my home open to other kids; in fact, I even converted my living room into a game room equipped with a ping pong table, stereo, and computer with games. My 17- and 19-year-old kids have friends over all the time. Yet, my son still prefers to be alone. What can I do?
A. First of all, it's important to determine why your son prefers solitude. Does he want to be alone as a way of protecting himself from outside problems or does he actually find pleasure and contentment in it? For the most part, if your child is happy and able to get along with people but prefers to be alone, I'd say you have little to be worried about. Some people simply don't need as much social interaction as others.
If you feel, however, that your son is experiencing a social problem, start by trying to determine when it began. Has it been life-long or has it come about after a traumatic incident, such as the death of his father or divorce? If it's the latter, then your son is likely experiencing a common phenomenon where he feels the need to stick close to you to "protect" you. If your other children were older at the time of the loss of their father, they probably already had social networks in place. Younger children often feel they're the last frontier of family, especially as your older children begin to move on with their lives and even out of the house.
As you encourage your son to develop outside friendships, consider the following steps:
Pursue your own friendships. Set up a regular get-together with a girlfriend. Whether it's lunch or a movie, the regular time out will do you good. Talk to your son about the "empty nest" stage that's coming and how each of you are preparing for it. Remind him that you're strong and that both of you need friends in addition to your close mother-son relationship. If his father is alive, see if you can involve him, an uncle, a male family friend, or an older brother in encouraging your son to let go of you a little, and move out into the world.
Take small steps. Tell your son that both of you need to spend more time with friends and talk about a couple of people you each can try to get to know better. Pray together about this plan regularly. Make Friday nights a no-TV night and encourage him to make plans with friends instead.
Make friends at church. Is there another mom in the church (single or otherwise) in the same predicament as you? Make plans for the four of you to see a movie?the boys can go to one movie and the moms can see another at the same theater. Meet up for ice cream after the movies. Ask your youth director if there's an outgoing boy who might be willing to be a buddy to your son and help him get involved in youth group activities. If your church group isn't active, seek out a Campus Life club or other parachurch organization at his school.
Q. My 5 1/2 year-old son has a hard time listening. We need to repeat ourselves often and really stay on top of him in order to get him to do anything we ask. He's also known to be very unfocused at school as well. Are we expecting too much of him for his age? Will this pass or could he have some kind of problem?
A. It's pretty normal to get frustrated when you find yourself continually asking your child to complete a simple task. However, for his age, your son's behavior isn't that unusual. Here are some ways to determine if your child does have a problem:
Have his hearing tested. Before you do anything else, it's important that you rule out any physical problems that might be making it hard for your son to understand you.
Assess and reduce the level of stimulation in your home. It's possible that your home is buzzing with lots of stimulation: phones ringing, people coming and going, a television that's often on, other children. These are all things that can overwhelm your son and distract him from focusing on your requests. You can lower the distractibility level by playing quiet music and turning off the TV.
Make simple, respectful requests. For kids younger than 5, it helps if you stop what you're doing and get down to their eye level before making your request. Make sure you have his attention by gently placing a hand on his arm or shoulder. At first, this may appear time-consuming and feel like too much effort on your part. But in reality, it will take less time and use less energy than the much-repeated, call-across-the-house requests you're having to use now. It's also important to make only one request at a time. "Please go get your shoes" is much easier to follow than "Please go get your shoes, put them on, and meet me by the car."
Check in often. Watch your child and provide lots of verbal praise when he follows your directions.
Keep an eye on it. If you try all these things and he still doesn't improve, have him assessed for learning or attention problems by a psychologist.
Q. My husband is in law enforcement and carries a gun. We have two children, a 2-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy and they have never seen the gun. We have strict rules about the placement and locking of the handgun, but I'm not sure that's enough. Because guns will always be a part of our lives, I'm concerned about the safety of our children. What can we do?
A. As I'm sure you know, unsecured handguns in the home are the leading cause of gun-related injury and death among children. While I understand your strategy of "don't show, don't tell," I'm not sure it will remain a safe gun strategy as your kids get older. On the other hand, the "show, tell, and teach" strategy doesn't always work either. I believe the best approach is to work out a strategy with your husband that can be adapted as your children get older.
- Start by holding a parent meeting with your husband. Before your meeting, you should each jot down three acceptable gun policy options on a sheet of paper. Then, sit down together and share your ideas, giving each person a chance to give a rationale for his or her ideas without interruption. Narrow down the lists to two options and commit to pray about these options for a week. Then, meet briefly the following week and share what God has laid on your heart.
- Review your family policy periodically. Policies that work well for pre schoolers or elementary kids often don't work for adolescents. Every two years or so, review your policy and make any necessary changes. As your children get older, bring them into the discussion to get their feedback and establish groundrules everyone can abide by.
Personally, with such young children, I would recommend securing the firearm away from your home. While this may sound extremely conservative, the reality is, if the child does not have access to a weapon, he won't be able to use it, accidentally or on purpose.
As your children reach the age when they can physically manipulate a weapon?even by accident?it's crucial that you and your husband commit to educating them on the importance of gun safety. When your children are exposed to violence, whether in a cartoon, movie, or on the evening news, use that opportunity to explain the dangers of guns, the reasons they are used by law enforcers, and your family ethic regarding violence.
Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is the mother of two and a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy.
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