Q: A My son is 7 years old, in first grade and is a nice, loving boy. He gets As and Bs in school and his teacher says she wishes all the children in her class behaved as well as he does.
For the past few months, however, it's been very hard for him to control himself with me, his dad, his sister or the sitter. He throws things when he gets mad and says he wants to run away, he wants to kill himself, he wishes that he didn't belong in this family and he hates me.
After an hour or so, he acts like nothing happened and he will say, "Sorry." If I ask him why he said what he did, he always answers me, "I don't know; I didn't mean it." I know he says these things in anger, but I'm afraid he might really do what he says.
When I ask him if there is anything bothering him -- the way his dad or I treat him -- he will say, "Nothing." I always feel guilty that maybe I am not doing the right thing for him.
I always make him feel that I love him even if I get mad at him, explaining that I get mad at him sometimes because there is always a limit in everything that he can do and that I can let him do. He will say, yes, he understands and he doesn't mean to make me mad.
Do you think my son needs counseling?
A: When parents treat their child as sensitively as you do, it's hard to think it could be making him depressed -- especially since it never has before.
It's true that depression is possible but the signs of it -- the lack of laughter, the sadness, withdrawal, listlessness, anger or anxiety -- would be noticeable at school as well as at home. Depression is fairly constant with only brief respites, and it doesn't develop so suddenly. That's why counseling isn't advised now.
You need to look for the changes in your child's life that could have made him behave in this new and troubling way. Any child who changes suddenly should have a full physical check-up, so the doctor can rule out diabetes, thyroid, hypoglycemia and other conditions that can cause depression or mood swings.
There are other possibilities.
His age may have had an impact. Seven-year-olds traditionally feel unloved and sorry for themselves, perhaps because the body, the mind, the emotions and the conscience are taking great leaps forward now. The most even-tempered child is unsettled by so much change.
A child also may get upset if someone he loves has died or divorced recently: he may be worried that you and his dad might leave him. Your little boy may just need to be reassured.
You should consider his environment and his diet, too.
Although it's still a controversial issue, many doctors and a growing number of parents have found that children have emotional as well as physical reactions to common items. A new rug pad, a kitten or strips of fabric softener can make some children fall apart, and so can a dye, a preservative or a food as healthy as milk -- or as unnecessary as sugar.
The most likely problem, however, is school, since your child's misbehavior began soon after he started first grade. He may be so intimidated by it that he is very good when he's there, only to explode at home, where he knows he's safe.
Ask the teacher if you can observe your son's class quietly for a day or even a half-day. You'll be able to tell if he has become the target of other children in the class or if the teacher is so busy handling a few rowdy children that she has little time or attention for the well-behaved.
If your son knows the teacher needs him to be good -- and it sounds like she does -- he won't bother her when he can't do the work. She may not even notice that he's getting more and more behind and will keep on giving As and Bs. It isn't unusual for a bright child to memorize a story and recite it so well the teacher thinks he's reading.
If he has a disability in reading (or anything else), he'll hide it not only from the teacher, but from himself. A child with a learning disability always thinks everyone else has the same perceptions he does but that somehow they just learn faster and better.
If your son does have a learning disability, there is no great cause for alarm. One child in 10 needs extra tutoring and one in 20 needs to spend some time in a special class.
With help, even the worst disabilities generally clear by the mid-teens, when the brain catches up with itself, and most are corrected much sooner.
No Easy Answers, the classic book on learning disabilities by Sally L. Smith (Bantam, $3.95), will help you understand these possibilities and the school psychologist will help you get your child tested quickly. The sooner this problem is diagnosed, the sooner he can be tutored, so he can catch up with his class. This helps the child keep much of his self-esteem.
You may be responsible for some things that go wrong in your child's life, but as he gets older he encounters other influences, for better or worse.