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Q: I have a son who is ten years old, is an A & B student, has chronic asthma (uses several medications) and seems to be really hard on himself. His father and I divorced when he was five. We share joint custody and he spends about the same amount of time with both of us. I remarried four years ago and his father remarried a year ago. We all are very much involved in the parenting and discuss ways to make joint parenting work. We were concerned about our son, so we sent him to a trusted friend who is a psychologist. He said that our son has performance anxiety. We have always felt that our son seemed to want to do something one-hundred percent or not at all. However, we are concerned about how to help him to not be so hard on himself. We also wonder if his asthma could be part of the reason for his anxiety. Please help us understand what factors could be causing his performance anxiety and how we can help. We love him so much and want him to be happy and thrive. Thank you.
A: It's so gratifying to hear from parents who have divorced and have managed to remain partners in giving their children the best of their love and support. I would not purport to form educated guesses here in cyberspace that would be better than a therapist who had a chance to get to know your son; but let me give a few considered responses that may, at least, open up some helpful realms of exploration.
1. My own son, age 19, has had chronic asthma since he was 2, and with appropriate use of medications and learning to "take responsibility" for his illness he has managed very well mentally and physically, not using the asthma as an excuse for anything, yet realizing he does have some limitations. If your son has had severe asthma attacks and/or knows that if he doesn't take his medicines "perfectly" he will be in big trouble, that malingering fear can produce a chronic anxious " backdrop" that unconsciously taints all his "performances". I'd like to be secure in my parental knowledge of how he "really is" psychologically with having asthma. Kids at this age often are exposed to the mortality issues of this disease through newspaper articles and/or TV health reports. He may be more worried than you know.
2. I would like to explore the notion that your husband's recent remarriage now completes his having his parents completely broken up "forever". Kids often hold out hope that their parents will get back together as long as one has not remarried. This recent marriage may have closed the book on all that hope and/or revivified all the fear of losing you both. Many kids believe that if they were better kids, i.e. performed perfectly, their parents never would have become angry with each other and divorced.
3. You may want to step back and see if you have subtly sent him messages throughout his childhood of what you consider to be acceptable and expected of him in his pursuits. Perhaps encouragement in areas that interest him where the "success factor" is not present would be a worthy goal, i.e. just playing and having fun, alone, with you, or with other kids where the only "goal" is having a good time.
4. If his life is lived in constant fear of "failing" at everything, he does need more support now than you alone can give him, but he should be "allowed" to be a kid who just plain sets high expectations for himself and while it may trouble you to see him demand so much of himself, you may just have to lighten his load as much as you can. Realize that this may be one of his personality traits that has positive sides as well, that it will be tempered as he ages.
I'm sure a trusted, talented therapist who has worked with kids who have your son's family background and self-demanding personality will be of great help. Let me caution you, however that just because this current therapist is a trusted friend that does not mean he is the best choice for your son. Ideally, your son should do the choosing after meeting with a few top choices you have found; the person should be a good "fit" for your son's personality.
Good luck and thank you for being such caring parents.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.