Managing Transitions Away from Electronics
Jerry is a 13-year old boy who will not get off the computer. His mother in particular gets into terrible struggles with him when it is time to do his homework and he is intensely involved in a computer game that he refuses to leave. If it were not for his homework, his mother would not object as much, since he is developing skills in fine motor coordination, pattern analysis, and quick reaction time – to say nothing of his facility with computers! – And also he often engages in interactive games with his friends, which are collaborative as well as competitive and highly social. The main problem is that he does not do his homework. As soon as he comes home from school, he rushes to his computer and begins a game. When it is time for homework, supper, or bed, he refuses to get offline. (In response to a NY Times column about the subject, I found interesting comments from parents.)
It is not that Jerry does not care about school. He is very ambitious and conscious of the success of his slightly older sister, with whom he is highly competitive. He is discouraged about his school record and dreads receiving his report card, but he seems unable to accept help. When his teachers offer him extra help, he usually politely thanks them but does not show up for the scheduled session. He refuses any regular tutoring assistance. Last year he would ask his mother or father to sit in the room with him while he did his homework – although he would not allow them to help him in any concrete way – but this year he refuses any support from them. This drives them wild with feelings of worry and helplessness.
Jerry has always been an active, rather disorganized child, interested in sports and fairly good at them, but intense and prone to tantrums. He has such a short fuse that his parents and sister have tended to monitor his moods closely and when he is in “a bad mood”, “walk on eggshells” to avoid an outburst. His parents have extended themselves in many ways to try to make things better for him. They have helped him play the sports he choses and attended all of his games. They have advocated for him fiercely at school. Still, family life has been hard.
His mother says that when he is on the computer he is happy and excited, and completely involved. When he gets off the computer, he falls apart – becomes irritable, disorganized, infantile, and sometimes aggressive. When he acts like this, she tries to negotiate with him, but his negative behavior just escalates until a blowup. After that, when she tries to talk to him about what just happens, he either blows up again, or he leaves and slams the door behind him. His father sometimes has more luck with soothing him when he is irritable, but he is not much better at getting him to leave the computer or do his homework. His mother feels that she is always “the heavy” and expected to set limits and keep order in the home, while her husband comes and goes when it serves him. Sometimes she thinks that if he were “more present” as a father, Jerry would not be in trouble – and when she is at her wits’ end, she will tell him so – but other times she acknowledges that there is no simple answer for Jerry’s difficulties.
Both Jerry’s parents came from modest backgrounds and were exceptionally high achievers as children and adolescents. They now both have successful professional careers, though perhaps not at the level or degree of satisfaction that they had envisioned. Whereas his father had studied at Julliard and had imagined a career as a performing musician, he now teaches at a private school and works at composing music in his spare time. His mother, who had won national prizes as a figure skater, is now a coach.
This story is an elaboration of the “transition to school” posting, since it also involves homework. There is an excellent set of posts on the Child Mind Institute on transition to school that can be helpful to caregivers. They include good strategies to try first. A colleague has written a thoughtful blog post about the transition to kindergarten. Many of the children whose parents consult me have tried or could try these strategies without success. The story of Jerry is an example of such a case. My posting is to remind caregivers that each child is unique and has an inner world of his own, so that general strategies – no matter how intelligent or thoughtful – are sometimes not the answer. Rather, trying to imagine what is going on inside the child’s mind is the best way to start every effort to scaffold a difficult transition. Let me know what you imagine about what is in Jerry’s mind.