Visual Disorders, Anxiety, Depression and School Performance

Anxiety and depression in your child may be the result of a visual disorder. The physical, mental, and emotional changes that are going on at this age make it difficult to manage a disorder they usually don’t even know they have. Compensation, and particularly in school, is much more successful at a younger age, a much simpler time in their lives. Intelligent, bright children study for hours and still struggle. They often feel that no matter how hard they try, they will never be “good enough.” With so much effort going to their studies, they may feel they are missing out on having fun and being a kid. They feel resentful of their parents but mostly take these feelings out on themselves — feeling they are not smart enough, not good enough. This contributes to both anxiety and depression.

I recently met with an eighth-grader scheduled by his parents for help.  This client had terrible anxiety about being in school. S/he had difficulty in math, and reading took a tremendous amount of effort.  Reading passages over and over and over again, s/he often memorized them before beginning to understand them. This client studied from the time s/he got home until bedtime.  Anxiety about whether or not the information had been understood and retained would take hold the following day. Testing took longer to complete than for others, and so anxiety about finishing on time was prevalent on test days. Anxiety would continue to build over the fretting about resultant test scores and overwhelming thoughts of a negative outcome. When scores were revealed, a hampster wheel of self-deprecation ran on and on about how much better others did, the state of her/his GPA, and how much smarter everyone else must be. I remind you, this is an eighth grader. 

In the first session, I did a simple visual assessment to see if her/his eyes were “working together.” This is not about vision, but coordinated eye movement. It appeared that the eyes were not, in fact, working together, and I referred this client to Dr. Brian Thamel (in Spencer), a Developmental Optometrist. Dr. Thamel confirmed that my client had a Disorder of Convergence. What does this mean? Well, the eyes are designed to focus together on the same point in space. With both eyes doing so, we have both recognition and comprehension. We have both sides of the brain processing information. But if our eyes don’t focus on the same point in space, then each eye is seeing something different. The brain, not at all happy with the mental confusion this creates, shuts off the information coming from one eye.

People affected by this disorder have reading recognition but struggle with comprehension. In math, we need both the right brain (to see patterns) and the left brain (to understand the logic).  With only half of the brain working at any time, there’s bound to be trouble. This disorder can cause other problems, such as an inability to see life patterns in thinking and behavior, and to then make generalizations to correct our course for greater success. People who are undiagnosed have no idea of the amount of stress and irritability that is created, on a daily basis, as they try to focus their eyes together for any length of time. Sleepiness while reading or studying is common. They might be easily distracted by noise: a lawnmower, dishwasher, voices.

And for school-aged children, no matter how long and how hard they study, they are going to struggle in school. It doesn’t make sense to the parents because their child is so smart, and so they tend to push. These youngsters feel a constant sense of defeat and hopelessness as they try every harder, often with teachers and parents who believe, because of a child’s intelligence, that they are not trying hard enough. Visual disorders like a Disorder of Convergence are not are not tested for in schools. Children suffer with them and never know why school is so difficult for them. School should not be hard. It should be exciting, interesting and challenging in a way that creates a passion to learn.  

Back to our eighth grader. While working with Dr. Thamel on eye exercises that took no more than ten minutes a day, the client worked with me on anxiety and limiting beliefs (depression). Seven sessions later the client was ready to terminate therapy. S/he reported an absence of anxiety (my part), and that studying had become easier (Dr. Thamel’s part). Educational materials made sense and were easy to read and comprehend. Test anxiety had decreased significantly, and this youngster believed s/he would do well on tests and in school. It doesn’t get any better than that!


Communication and Conflict

I often work with couples and families. One major issue is the way people talk to each other. The choice of responses sets up conflict before either party knows what happened.   Let me give you an example with Joe and Jane.  Joe attempts to address a behavior in Jane that bothers him. Jane responds with some thing like, “What about you?” or “You do it too” or “I don’t do it that much.” In first two instances, the behavior that Joe was trying to address has been ignored and the subject has been changed from Jane back to Joe. In the last instance, the subject has been changed to how much the behavior occurs rather than how it effects Joe. This is infuriating to Joe who is trying to make a point because the issue Joe was trying to address never gets resolved when the subject gets changed. Ongoing conflict around unresolved issues ensues and Joe continually brings up these issues because they are never resolved. Jane becomes angry because Joe has a memory like a computer and can never move on. He is stuck in the past with a backlog of unresolved feeling and issues.

Another problem is the use of global labeling. Global labeling is the use of terms like “always,” never,” everyone,” “no one.” For example, Jane tells Joe, “you always bring up the past.” or “you never help around the house.” Joe feels unappreciated for the times he has attempted to stay in the present and for the times he has helped around the house. Joe’s response is to bring up the past to defend himself. It’s a vicious cycle.

The argument that, “everyone we know is (doing something)” or “no one else (does that or thinks that way) can also cause anger. If Joe is talking to Jane about something he wants or needs, not only is the subject changed to other people but it can be experienced as quite critical that Joe is not like everyone else.

There are many more examples of errors in communication. For the most part, I would say that people know not what they do, only that they have trouble communicating without fighting or distancing. Counseling can help people see the patterns and practice correcting them.

The Perils of Not Parenting Your Child

Many parents are finding it difficult to discipline their children. They don’t want to hit or hurt their children. Often parents have very stressful lives, managing to work full or part-time, take care of the house, the children, and try to make time for leisure activities. Stress, feelings of guilt and the desire to be loved by your child can interfere with parenting. Parenting means to prepare your child for the real world. If an adult were to yell, cry, kick their feet and pound their fists, most people would be appalled. However, many parents don’t know what to do with temper tantrums. They feel they are a reflection of their parenting, they are embarrassed and often they can’t tolerate the noise, so they give in. What the child learns is that if they kick and scream, eventually they will get their way. Fast forward to adolescence and you have a real problem on your hands. Temper tantrums now involve an adult body with adult language and adult skills of manipulation. Teens throw things, yell, say hurtful things, slam doors, run away, put holes in walls and other property damage, and flat out refuse to do what you ask. Why? Because they can. They have done it for years.

Start setting limits with your children when they are young. Limits are what you are willing to tolerate and what you are not. Give choices to your children. i.e. “If you continue to scream and yell, we will leave the store and you will not have milk for your cereal in the morning. It is your choice.” If they continue to behave inappropriately, remove them from the situation even if it is inconvenient. Perhaps you are shopping and just want to finish and go home but, it is worth the extra time, now and in the long run, to take the child out of the store, sit in the car and wait for them to calm down and drive home. Keep extra supplies on hand and if you don’t have milk in the morning for their breakfast, remind them that that was their choice. Consequences should be natural and logical, “If you don’t get dressed now to be on time for the bus, you will have to go to bed 1/2 early tonight so that I can wake you up earlier tomorrow. It’s your choice.” If your child is into electronics (phone, TV, games), you may have a rule that they are not to be used until homework is done. Choices put ultimate control in the child’s hands. They may regret the choice they made later but, it was their choice. Children who have clear limits and choices feel safe and loved. Bribery is not a choice. Bribery teaches children to do things because they get something for doing it, not because they need to do it to be a member of the family (chores) or of society (school) or to move forward in the furture. When you ask them to do something and they respond, “What do I get for it?” you’ll see my point.

In the real world, if you behave badly, no one wants to be around you. If you go to work late, you have to stay late. If you don’t go to work, you don’t have the money to pay for the things you enjoy (privileges). Basic stuff. Your child may be angry at the limits you set, but children need limits to feel safe. Without them they feel anxious. It is too much for a child to be put in charge.