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Stress in children leads to bad behaviour

Stress in children leads to inappropriate sexualised behaviour, violence and bullying in schools, and educational struggles, according to clinical psychologist Sandy De Silva.

The director of services at Family Centre said trends in Bermuda's economy, community disorganisation and not addressing past trauma had resulted in “stressed families” breeding “stressed children”.

“Often, stressed families are more at risk of having family members be bullied or being the bully, not effectively participating in schools because they are feeling stressed and being more at risk of inappropriate sexualised behaviour,” Dr De Silva said. “As the public we may just see them as badly behaved children, when really they are stressed children living in a stressed household.”

Dr De Silva, who spoke with The Royal Gazette as Family Centre celebrates 25 years of helping those in need, believes that poverty, unemployment, underemployment and a high rate of unaddressed multigenerational trauma is leading to “stressed families”.

“We know that poverty impedes learning and contributes to social and behaviour problems,” she said. “Trying to make ends meet is very stressful and can be very chaotic if you don't know how the electricity bill is going to be paid. Families in these situations may function at a basic level.”

Dr De Silva pointed to the estimated poverty line, set at $56,000 per two-person household in 2014. Family Centre estimates that 20 per cent of the workforce is struggling to make ends meet and nine per cent of families were unemployed in 2014, with the rate for Bermudians projected to be higher than the national average. The organisation also estimates that 3,000 families are struggling with unaddressed trauma.

According to Dr De Silva, these conditions can lead to families being stressed, which then results in stressed children, who either internalise this by becoming withdrawn, depressed or anxious, or externalise it by acting out in school or other public places.

“The most common age for youth to be at risk for violence is 13 to 15 — they're looking for a sense of self at this developmental stage, a sense of self-worth,” Dr De Silva said. “Everyone wants to find a place of belonging in the world and when there is no clear path to this in your family's system due to perpetuated trauma, then a person may become at risk for latching on to whatever provides safety, protection, allegiance and loyalty.”

Dr De Silva, who believes the “having nothing to lose” mentality is a big problem because “there is no deterrent to antisocial behaviour”, said the key to violence and bullying is prevention. Young people should be exposed to possibilities and opportunities to show them “there is something to live for”, she said.

She added that although violence and bullying “has always been there in schools”, social media has brought it to the forefront.

“We know that a child's education is the foundation from which he or she will be able to come forth out into the world and build a life, so schools play a major role and therefore they must be safe havens for our children. True learning will not take place when someone is afraid,” she added.

Dr De Silva recommends parents find ways to actively participate in their children's education by joining a parent teacher association, for example, or asking them about their school life.

“We need parents and schools to join together to ensure that children are provided with the best academic education within a nurturing environment,” she said.

She added that Family Centre assists children and families through counselling and case management services, helping them access the necessary resources and support systems they need.

But Dr De Silva said individuals can also help, for example, by checking in on their neighbours or family members who work multiple jobs, helping each other with groceries, watching each other's children or meal pooling.

She added: “If you are struggling, please ask for help.

“Start with a trusted family member, friend, place of faith or helping agency. Let go of any embarrassment. Asking for help is the most courageous thing you can do and it models a healthy, problem-solving model for your children.”

Psychologist Dr Sandy DeSilva. (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
<p>Children now ‘bombarded with sexual messages’ </p>

In an age where children are being “bombarded with sexual messages”, parents need to form a trusting relationship with their children and use that as the foundation for asking questions.

This is the opinion of Sandy De Silva, director of services at Family Centre.

“There was a time when children just enjoyed being children,” Dr De Silva said. “With movies, TV, the internet, Instagram, WhatsApp, Tumblr — now everywhere a kid turns they are bombarded with sexual messages — it’s everywhere.”

According to Dr De Silva, this has led to “inappropriate, sexualised behaviours behind closed doors and in public”.

The clinical psychologist said parents need to monitor their children and should not be afraid to ask them questions.

“You need to form a trusting relationship with your child and use that as the foundation for asking questions. Don’t be afraid to use parental controls,” she added. “Your child may get mad at you, but so what.”

Because the brain does not stop developing up until the age of about 23, Dr De Silva said children do not always think before they act because that capability is not fully developed.

“In the absence of parents’ guidance there is a risk of high school dropout, higher risk of dangerous sexual behaviour or antisocial behaviours and a higher chance of alcohol and drug abuse,” she said.

Dr De Silva’s comments came after Martha Dismont, the executive director of Family Centre, spoke to The Royal Gazette in celebration of the charity’s 25th anniversary.

In a series of articles celebrating the milestone, Mrs Dismont called for the Island’s leaders and adults to set a good example and demonstrate behaviour necessary to tackle a multitude of social problems.

She also called for the Island to decide on a set of core values so it can collectively begin to address problems such as unhealthy relationships, poor education and a lack of life skills.

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Published August 31, 2015 at 9:00 am (Updated August 31, 2015 at 9:00 am)

Stress in children leads to bad behaviour

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