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Advice about 'zoned-out' boy is revised

| Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Stop the presses. In my column of two weeks ago, I answered a question from the mother of a first-grade boy who frequently "zoned out" in class, the result being he rarely finished classwork. I recommended that Mom have her son bring incomplete work home and finish it there with the understanding that every paper brought home (that should have been finished in class) results in bedtime being moved back a half-hour. I've recommended that same strategy many times, and feedback has been almost universally positive.

Not this time. Several readers, including one physician, an internist, wrote to say that the child might be experiencing what is known as "absence" or "silent seizures." My inquiring mind did some research and, sure enough, that is a possibility. So, I encourage the mom in question as well as any parent whose child is "zoning out" periodically, especially in the middle of tasks, to have the child evaluated by his or her pediatrician or a pediatric neurologist.

I feel moved to mention that the internal physician above wrote "Shame on you." With due respect, I don't accept that I should feel ashamed.

Every column I write is read before publication by at least one pediatrician.

To date, I have yet to receive a letter concerning this particular column from any pediatricians or neurologists. It would appear, therefore, that this problem is rare. So I am correcting the oversight absent feelings of disgrace.

Question: My 10-year-old son wrote an autobiographical poem as a school assignment. The assignment was to write about what he dreams, wants and fears. He wrote, in part, "Dreams I get killed by aliens...dreams I was never born...wants to die...wonders how life will turn out...afraid of death...afraid of life."

The rest was about the son I know "who loves mac and cheese, card games, books and my imagination." When I asked about the poem, he cried and said life is made up of good and bad, and the bad dominates. He was upset and could not further articulate his thoughts. Several days later, it seems the poem is long over and done with in his mind; however, I remain scared by his words about dying.

He is smart, creative, articulate, and, I think, cautiously happy in general. Thank you for any advice.

Answer: Your son's obviously a very sensitive boy. He's also, by his own admission, quite imaginative. Furthermore, his capacity for abstract thought is enlarging significantly at this age and will continue to do so for the next few years. To put it simply, he's beginning to lose his sense of innocence about the world. The confluence of these factors will cause him, at times, to ruminate on negative events, thoughts and feelings. The writing exercise just brought lots of this to the surface. In one sense, it gave him a healthy outlet for expressing things that are disturbing and worrisome.

The bottom line is, I don't think this episode means there's something psychologically "wrong" with him. He's growing up, and that entails coming to grips with new ideas and emotions, some of which, as all adults know, are not pleasant. Be careful not to make a big deal of things of this nature. He already has demonstrated that he "rebounds" from these sorts of feelings quite functionally. Asking him whether he wants to talk about his feelings is one thing; acting anxious about them is quite another. At this time in his life, the last thing he needs is a mom who's worrying about him.

John Rosemond is a family psychologist.

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