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A Psychologist's Thoughts on Clinical Practice, Behavior, and Life

The Unconscious Factors Underlying Some Learning Difficulties

Psychology has long known of the association between unconscious emotional attitudes and academic failure, or with a subject that is considered disagreeable from association with a parent's occupation. Reading difficulty can result from the angry feelings it arouses or a frightening experience of self, and school failure from the unconscious desire for criticism and punishment. A child's problems with their mother, the most important figure in their early development, can extend to their relationship with their teacher.
An overly narcissistic mother, or one who views their child as defective, will hinder their child's ability to adapt to reality, particularly when speech is used to gain praise rather than communicate. Underachievement, a failure to learn, can reflect hostility, an indirect passive attack on parents and society. Clearly, for some children, the powerful, genetically endowed hunger to learn has been throttled.

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Why Many Children Can't Read

That many children can't read shouldn't be happening since this ability is innate and learning it presents no greater difficulty than learning to eat with a spoon. Why it does is the unacknowledged "Elephant in the Room," and not the fault of teachers but of parents.
A child naturally learns the language of their country of birth. Thus one born in the U.S.A. learns English and one born in Germany learns German and the same for other countries. They accomplish this not by memorizing all combinations of words which is impossible, but by inducting the grammatical structure of their language, a task for which the human brain is genetically programmed at birth.

Thus if parents first read to and then with their toddler beginning at two years of age, aiding the reading learning process by moving their finger along the printed line, their child will read simple books upon beginning kindergarten. Not all children but nearly all, provided that they are experiencing a "good-enough" parenting since its lack can create psychological difficulties affecting learning.

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Helping a Child Cope With Their Severe Illness

Being seriously ill as an adult arouses terrors. These are infinitely worse for a child since their understanding lacks mature insight. They perceive their all-powerful parents as deliberately bringing them to doctors who cause them discomfort and pain. Which are unavoidable for those suffering from cancer or convulsive disorders even when the prognosis is favorable. The child feels friendless, having none who can understand except for their stuffed animal friend who mutely observes.
Young children consider stuffed animals as friends who are no different from living friends with whom adults share their secrets. Children talk to them, play with them, and sometimes hurt them which, like good parents, they lovingly forgive.
Speaking to these children of their medical situation, by using their stuffed animal friend as intermediary, can be supportive by relieving their trauma and isolation and giving hope.

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Parental Reluctance to Confront Their Child's Emotional Problems

Years ago a mother brought her child to my office. While speaking with her alone, I referred to her son's "emotional problems." "My child does not have emotional problems," the mother insisted, and stormed from my office. Had I been given the chance I might have asked, "Then why are you here?" but already knew the answer: to gain reassurance that, despite having observed his bizarre behavior, her child was perfectly fine.
This illogic, when a parent's emotion-based reality clashes with actual reality, is understandable. Though unwise, it reflects the parent's feeling of shame from the belief that they failed as a parent. Which is undeserved since children are not born with instructions nor have all parents experienced a "good enough" parenting during their own childhood. Once a parent gains help for their troubled child they have no reason to feel guilt and it is counter-productive to the success of their child's treatment. But not seeking treatment for their child, especially when it leads to harm, is inexcusable.

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Childhood Developmental Failures and Its Consequences

By the end of toddlerhood, important human lessons must be learned: that people can be trusted; that warmth from others is possible; that verbalizing feelings leads to greater comfort than behaving impulsively; and that continuity of relationships is the rule and not the exception.

These convictions and such basic ego capacities as the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, to modulate mood, to control thinking and behavior, and to create an accurate sense of who one is ("sense of self") are critical if a child is to feel confidence and realize joy in living.
This is why the severer psychological disorders which derive from the earliest years are devastating, making many of these sufferers incapable of living an independent adult existence and achieving satisfying relationships. Leading to continuing frustration and despair, and even suicide.

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On Deserved and Undeserved Parental Guilt

While it is best for a distressed child to receive mental health treatment as soon as possible this is not always done. Babies are not born with instructions and parent guilt is often a factor, they not wanting to accept their role in their child's problems. While parents don't blame themselves for a child's physical illness they often do so with their child's emotional problems. Feeling responsible, and with justification since early life experiences are the bedrock of adequate functioning. But parenting mistakes derive from their own imperfect life experiences so, after gaining treatment for their child, parental guilty feelings are undeserved and counter-productive in helping their child. And though children will readily forgive parental mistakes they never forget having been ignored.

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Good Common Sense Isn't Always Good Parenting Sense

Some child interaction guidelines, which have long been followed by both parents and teachers, derive from the popular notion that reward and punishment effect behavior. Thus if a child is punished for misbehaving they are less likely to do so in the future. A belief which sounds reasonable but is not.


As psychologists have long known, behavior modification work with dogs but not cats, with those of severely limited intellect (since it simplifies their environment) but not those of near normal and above intelligence, and for inhabitants of tightly controlled environments such as prisons. It does not work with others since humans are a thinking species.


Moreover, children are reasonable and want to develop into adults. Thus if asked to do something by their parent or teacher they usually will though being less likely to do so if they are hungry or tired or ill or troubled, or unable to do what is asked for a reason which may make sense to their immature mind but not to others.


Thus, apart from emergency situations involving harm or danger, explaining why a child should do something will usually gain their cooperation. If not it will be for one of the above reasons in which case they will be behaving like similarly afflicted adults.

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Special Education Consigns Students to "A Treadmill of Failure"

A January 7, 2022 letter in The Wall Street Journal, "The Tragedy of 'Special Ed,'" insisting that these programs consign students "to a treadmill of failure," aroused my long-past memory. While doing psychological research in a Mid-West school, I sensed the similarity between a school and a factory.

Both operate on a rigid timetable where products (widgets or students) must move smoothly along the production line. With students this involves flowing without interruption from classroom to lunchroom to dismissal, with interference being removed. Thus defective widgets, or slowly moving/uncooperative students, are removed, with the latter being sent to Special Education to begin their struggle along the "treadmill of failure." The reason for this is simple: while academic failure can result from several reasons, it usually reflects psychological causation which schools, lacking sophisticated child development knowledge, are ill-equipped to remedy.

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When Children Are Given An Atypical Birthname

This past weekend, an article in The Wall Street Journal ("Harry Potter and the Children Whose Parents Named Them After Wizards" - The Wall Street Journal Article) jogged a personal memory.
In my grade school class were two children with my first name. Being the one with a middle name, I was long addressed as that, later hating it when a laughable TV teenage character was given this name. There were also a famed actor and a government official with this name but I didn't know it and children don't always think logically.

Years later, while walking a beach, I met a grade school friend cavorting with a bikini clad woman. He immediately jumped up, ran toward me, and warmly exclaimed my hated middle name to which I impulsively responded, "Shut up!" Don't ask me the name since I still hate it though I once told it to a young child who vowed to keep it secret.

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How To Explain Scary Dreams To A Child

Though scary dreams frighten and can greatly upset, "they are our friends" I tell my young patients. Stories that our mind creates to tell what is bothering us and, like the mystery movies we love, that we must try to figure out.

A scary dream could mean that we are nervous about school the next day or learning a new task like swimming. Or even of growing up and leaving home, which is a common worry as one grows older.
Explaining nightmares in this manner reassures a child and reduces their fear. And, if scary dreams don't frighten their parents, perhaps they are not to be feared at all. Once, having spoken this way to a five-year-old girl and repeating myself a month later, she dismissively said, "Oh I know that!"

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