Q: My nine-year-old son is experiencing anxiety and anger. My husband and I follow a traditional style of parenting—we are firm, have high standards for behavior, and are very loving. I believe our son ‘s anxiety is primarily due to two factors: health (his severe peanut allergy and allergies to dogs/cats that exclude or limit his freedom) and time management (the stress of lot of homework and regular daily chores). He is frustrated because even after working really hard all day before school, at school, and after school, he has only about 30 minutes of free time each day. He does not participate in any after-school activities but comes straight home, empties his backpack, eats a snack, and gets started on homework.
I’ve made him an after-school/evening schedule to help him stay on track without me hovering over him. When he dawdles, he gets very overwhelmed and angry with himself. We have purchased a punching bag for him to hit when he gets this way.
He is a very perceptive boy with a tremendous desire to learn. He loves to read the Bible and is developing a close relationship with the Lord. Several weeks ago, he was extra upset and told me something that stopped me in my tracks. He said that Satan is telling him to do really bad things to himself, like kill himself. I was very alarmed but I did my best to not show it. I want him to feel that he can tell me what is on his mind. The very next day we started to have nightly family devotional time. We also began memorizing Scripture as a family in an effort to fill his mind with God’s Word.
At this point, we are not sure what to do. I don ‘t want to overreact to my son’s comment about Satan but I don’t want to ignore a cry for help either. I am becoming hesitant to discipline him out of fear that he’ll get mad at himself, then hurt himself badly. He has allergy testing each year and knows that even eating 1/200th of a peanut (so small you can hardly see it) could cause life-threatening anaphylaxis. That is a lot of stress for a third-grader. I am concerned that he might get so angry one day and do something horrible….like eat part of a peanut (they are all over the place at school lunchtime). He is very responsible with his allergy and knows not to eat anything that I don’t provide for him but he is still a nine-year-old boy and could easily have flawed judgment.
I would sincerely appreciate your thoughts.
A: Thank you for sharing your heart with us. I can tell from your letter that you love him very much. He’s blessed to have such a caring mother, one who wants the best for her son. I think it’s wonderful that his comment spurred you to start having regular family devotions. That’s such an important part of his growing faith—and yours, too. Memorizing Scripture can be key to keeping negative thoughts at bay as well, so keep pressing on with that as well.
You have a couple of issues going on here, so let’s tackle the one that spooked you the most: his comment about Satan telling him to do bad things. He’s 9, he’s a third grader, and he’s super-stressed—those are your words. He’s probably saying Satan “told him” because he doesn’t fully understand how thoughts work. He didn’t want to think those things—they probably just popped into his head, like they do you and I at odd times. But he’s young and stressed, so he’s not able to realize that random thoughts happen to everyone.
So here’s what I suggest. Have a series of short conversations (don’t want to overwhelm the kid with a long-drawn out one that won’t make as much of an impact as several short ones will) in which you talk about random thoughts, how they pop into your mind and what to do about them. Then remind him, using Scripture, that Satan can’t reside in the same body as someone who loves Jesus. That’s not possible. Finally, wrap up with encouraging him to quote Bible verses and pray whenever thoughts that like come into his mind again. He can tell you and you can pray together.
Now as to his schedule. He has a lot on his plate, and frankly, I’m a little alarmed that a third grader has so much homework every night, that he can only have half an hour of free time. No wonder he’s stressed to the max. Last year, my third grader had NO homework most nights, and my fourth grader (same kid, a year older), rarely has homework either.
Your son has a very important job at this age—and that’s to play. Play is essential to keeping his stress very low, and it builds his immunity, gives him an outlet for his anxiety and also helps him solve problems through role playing and social interactions. He needs less schoolwork and more play time. Seriously, I’d stop with the regimented homework routine and implement free form play time every single day for at least 90 minutes, outside for much of that if possible. Have a conversation with his teacher about his not doing homework for the rest of the year. And if this is par for the course at this school, I’d move him or homeschool if possible for the rest of the year. He’s in third grade and it appears he has more homework than my ninth grader (who has more than half an hour of free time each night, even taking into account a later bedtime).
If you implement more free time and less structure, I think you can safely discipline him without worrying about self-harm, as long as you see no other signs (such as depression, not being himself, etc.).