Q: Our sixth-grade son has always been an excellent math student. This year, however, he melts down every time he does math homework. Within minutes, he becomes highly agitated, begins crying, and says it's too hard and he can't do it.
We spoke with his teacher, who says that he's having no problem in class. She had no explanation for what we're seeing at home.
When he begins crying, my husband usually goes to help him, but that only makes matters worse. Your advice would be much appreciated.
A: One can reasonably assume that sixth-grade math is more complex than fifth-grade math, but the teacher's report effectively eliminates the possibility that your son reached his peak mathematical ability level toward the end of the last school year.
Let's see - sixth grade, puberty, episodic emotional turmoil, lack of tolerance for frustration - I think I've got it! My diagnosis is tweenage math-specific self-drama syndrome, confirmed by the fact that his father's attempts to help only make matters worse. Drama begs for an audience, and no one is more inclined toward drama as the pre-pubescent tweenager.
In all fairness, while your son has always been an "excellent" math student, it may very well be that math is actually not his strong suit and that the jump from basic math to complex functions is giving him some trouble. But even if that's the case, it remains a safe bet that his emotional displays are out of proportion to the actual degree of difficulty.
Dramatic professions of helplessness are typical of immature human beings of any age. When playing the victim attracts an audience, the immature human being of any age will invariably choose "I can't" over "I can," even though "I can't" is obviously self-fulfilling and, as such, self-defeating.
I recommend, first, that Dad stop running in to rescue said drama-factory from his math issues. He should tell your son that if he wants help, he should coherently ask for it and it will be given. If, however, son becomes agitated, Dad's help is finished and will not resume that evening under any circumstances.
Second, make a rule that homework must be put away, finished or unfinished, at a certain time every evening, the actual time depending on after-school activities, when dinner is usually served and bedtime on school nights. This new policy will promote some much-needed time management on your son's part.
Third, inform your son that if he has a meltdown concerning math homework, his homework and book will be confiscated, upon which he can, if he chooses, wake himself up early in the morning and resume working on it.
It's essential that your well-intentioned husband stops feeding the drama dragon and that your son be forced to bring it under control. Nothing short of consequences is going to accomplish that with a tween, believe me. If experience serves me well, I predict that TMSSDS will be cured within several weeks.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his websites, johnrosemond.com and parentguru.com.