Staying sane through back-to-school madness: advice from the experts

As the summer ends, tensions can run high with the return to working for parents while children start a new class or even a new school. But there are ways to minimise the fallout.
Bob Gambrill is a consultant psychologist who finds that problems in families tend to peak at the end of the summer.
Bob Gambrill is a consultant psychologist who finds that problems in families tend to peak at the end of the summer.

The start of the new academic term in September is the busiest time of year for Bob Gambrill, a consulting psychologist and cognitive therapist working in Dubai.

"I'm booked up at least two weeks ahead of school starting and until around three weeks after," he says.

"While on holiday, parents have been spending a lot of time with their children and suddenly they're back to working long hours and invariably normal family interactions break down. Televisions and computers get switched on and relationship stresses start to show."

The added disruption of children being moved into a higher year or new school can manifest itself in many ways, from shyness to hyperactivity and even aggression, says Gambrill. Similarly, overworked and sleep-deprived parents can fall prey to anxiety, severe stress and in some cases, chronic depression.

To cater for the increasing number of families seeking support at this time, Gambrill will be launching "mindful workshops" at Dubai's LifeWorks centre in the coming weeks. His aim is to teach parents how to achieve a work-life balance while developing meaningful, intimate bonds with their children.

"When you talk to your child, be connected and really listen," he says. "For example, when children come home, instead of saying 'What did you do at school today?' and getting the standard response 'Nothing much', be mindful and ask about specific experiences like 'Are you getting on well with the teachers; have you made any special friends?.'"

He insists that, whether you're dealing with a toddler, a preteen or a teenager, sound communication is key to achieving harmony at home; without it, deeper emotional problems can often go unnoticed.

"Make the connection with your child one of 'safety' so that they feel they can open up to you. So that they might say something if they are being bullied at school, for example, which is not always easy for parents and teachers to spot."

The clinical psychologist Dr Roghy McCarthy set up her practice in Jumeirah 12 years ago. Local schools, such as St Mary's in Bur Dubai, refer parents to her when the behaviour of a child in their care deviates from the norm.

"Sometimes, a child is really not fitting in or may even be aggressive," she says. "In some cases, this can be ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder], and other times, it's attention-seeking behaviour.

"Recently, I had several cases relating to the presence of a newborn baby in the house. One seven-year-old was wetting the bed, beating up pupils at school and also hitting himself to get attention. It was therefore important for the parents to spend quality time alone with their son - balancing the needs of the newborn and the sibling."

As the new term commences, parents should be aware of the potential for them to transfer their anxieties to the children, says McCarthy. Constant criticism of poor grades or negative comments about the school can allow insecurities in the child to take seed and make them fearful to return to such a "horrible place" next term.

Demanding careers and antisocial working hours mean that many families in the UAE rely on maids to keep their houses in order. Gambrill sounds a note of caution when it comes to losing too much parental control.

"The role of the maid is something every family should look at because all too often, maids become the de facto parents. They put the kids to bed at night and pick them up from school. They end up raising the kids and providing for their emotional developmental needs."

Gambrill is not suggesting drastic changes to remedy the situation; it's more a case of going back to basics: "Turn off the BlackBerry, sit down and have a meal at the kitchen table as a family. Enjoy communicating. A major component is also time-management. That said, it's about the quality of the time you spend with your kids. Five minutes can be enough as long as you are 'being' in the relationship and not just 'doing' it."

Just as important as the well-being of the child is the mental health of the parents, Gambrill argues. His workshops and individual sessions aim to fortify the bond between husband and wife, where it's threatened by a dysfunctional relationship with their children.

Counselling aside, probably the most immediate help anyone can give themselves this September is recharging body and mind, he says.

"Interrupted sleep patterns, waking up early and with no energy - this has a massive multiplier effect. Sleep is one of the greatest focuses I put on patients. Eight hours minimum, I say. People say they can get by on less and it's just not true."

Published: August 28, 2011 04:00 AM

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