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Concerned about teen son

I HAVE three children aged 15, 13 and nine. The eldest and youngest are doing fine at school. However, I am concerned about my 13-year-old son. Since Year One, he has not been doing well. He is not interested in his studies. He has a lackadaisical attitude towards anything related to studies. He also has poor personal hygiene.

He does not show any concern at all, even when sitting for his exams. He just takes the days when he has exams like any normal day. He prefers to while away his time on other things, rather than revise his schoolwork.

He expects us to give him all the answers. Every time his father and I coach him, we are the ones doing all the talking; he maintains a silence throughout.

He refuses to think or put more effort in his studies. He has poor power of recall and cannot remember much of what has been taught. And, he gives up easily.

When I asked him what he wants to be when he grows up, he replied that he wants to be a teacher. There were times, too, when he asked his school friends for money and got into trouble.

I have noticed he likes to pretend to be a teacher. He would pretend to teach using the white board, when he’s in his room. He also likes to play computer games. He’s very good at helping out with household chores. He does these voluntarily and without hesitation. He will help to conserve energy at home when no one is in the room, help to lay the table for dinner and get it ready, and help the maid with the dirty laundry. He is also observant, inquisitive and has a good memory for other things not related to studies.

I am very worried about his future. I have scolded him many times and asked him to change his attitude and show more concern for his studies and personal hygiene.

However, I have yet to see any improvement. I have told him that I foresee a bleak future for him, given the fact that he is not knowledgeable, lazy to think for himself and has a negative attitude.

What can I do to motivate him to do better in his studies and show an interest in personal hygiene?

Worried Mum

Your middle child, at 13 years old, has been looked upon as the “black sheep” of the family. Compared to his older sister and younger brother, he appears to be an under-achiever. It must be hard for him to feel motivated when he is often regarded as the one who is not doing enough in the family.

I am glad you notice that he is good with chores and is helpful. His strengths, which you have highlighted, should be the starting point for you to work with in order to motivate him to change his negative ways. He has probably tuned out to all that talk about his negative behaviour and lack of interest in his studies.

Your son is now entering the teenage years. He is at the age when he has more questions than answers. Your son is at a vulnerable age. He is undergoing tremendous changes in all aspects of his life – physically, emotionally, socially, cognitively and spiritually. Parents must learn to deal with the changes in their children’s development and help them to face the challenges in positive ways.

If you want to motivate him to learn, make the subject exciting. Take the lessons out of the classroom and make them come alive for him. Instead of the drill and grill style of teaching, help him to embark on a journey of discovery. Lead him on to discover interesting facts and experiences. Make the school lessons part of his practical living.

As for the lack of interest in his personal hygiene, you may want to point out to him the pros and cons of keeping clean. No one likes to be near someone who smells or looks like he has not washed for ages. Make a list of self-grooming tips and ideas on how to take care of personal hygiene. Show him the list and tell him that you trust he will practise good personal hygiene because he wants positive attention from his friends.

The best thing you can do for your son is to give him wings and roots. He wants to feel independent and be in control of certain aspects of his life. If you are constantly telling him what to do and scolding him for not doing what you have asked of him, he will not be able to learn to make his own decisions and set goals for the future.

Set aside time and effort to listen to what your 13-year-old likes and talk about his interests. You will gain far more when you start focusing on what he is good at, rather than what he is not doing well in.

Your son needs practice in making judgments on his own and he needs you to listen to him and support him. This is how he can use his intelligence and put it into action

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In trouble for being inquisitive

MY son, who is nine years old, studies in a Chinese school. He is intelligent and a top student. My problem is he is very talkative, inquisitive and at times, annoying. Every answer is another question to him.

Since he started Primary One, my advice has fallen on deaf ears. He gets punished every day for talking in class. When I queried him, he replied that he could not control his mouth from talking.

I do not want him to be severely punished by the teachers for talking in class. Punishment – a blue-black thumb; a plaster over his moth; caning on his palm – does not seem to stop him from talking. I do not want to be called up to meet his teachers. Please advise me as to how to get him to keep quiet and behave in class. - Worried Mum

I FEEL sorry for the way your son is being treated in school. It is obvious he is interested in learning. Children who want to know more are often inquisitive and talkative. The problem lies with the teachers who treat them badly.

Set up a meeting with your son’s class teacher and have him sit in during the discussion. Your child needs to hear what his teacher has to say about his talking in class and her/his suggestions on how he should behave when he has a question or an idea he wants to share.

You may suggest to your son that he try writing down his ideas and approach his teachers when they are done with the class. Instead of constantly interrupting a lesson, he can contribute to it by taking notes of what the teacher says that intrigues him. When he is inspired to speak out loud, he may want to seek permission in a polite way.

MY three-year-old daughter has been sucking her thumb since birth. I tried giving her the pacifier but she always spat it out. She will poke her thumb into her mouth before sleeping or whenever her hand is not occupied with anything.

Now that she can understand things better, my husband and I have explained to her many times the negative effects of thumb-sucking (i.e. ingesting all the germs, the risk of bad breath, having others tease her, etc). But she doesn’t seem to care. A few times, her thumb even got sore from the sucking.

How can I stop her bad habit? Should I try putting something spicy on her thumb, following the old wives’ tale? - Helpless Mummy

THUMB-sucking is a common behaviour among toddlers. It is unsightly and embarrassing for parents, who worry that this habit will continue when the child is older. But is it really a problem? For whom?

Most children stop sucking their thumb by the time they go to kindergarten. Occasionally, some children may do it when they feel bored or anxious. In my opinion, thumb-sucking is more of a problem for parents than it is for children.

If you are really worried about her thumb getting sore, you can help her to keep it clean. Make sure you show her how to wash her hands and dry them. Remind her to wash her hands before and after she eats. You can start to teach her personal hygiene so that she will be healthy and happy.

You can also get your daughter to spend more time doing things with her hands. Plan hands-on activities such as playing with puzzles, play-dough, water and sand, paper-cutting with scissors, and threading with beads.

The idea is that the more time she spends working with her hands, the less time she will spend sucking her thumb.

To successfully get rid of this problem, your daughter has to be ready to do so. When she feels confident and secure, she may not need to do any thumb-sucking. So, avoid scolding or punishing her for her habit. Instead, focus your attention on helping her to feel good about herself.

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Making food enjoyable

Tips to get your child to eat right for healthy growth.

WHAT can a parent to do if a child refuses to eat certain foods or insists on eating only one or two types of food for days or weeks?

For many children, especially those between the ages of one and 10, eating can be a chore. In fact, studies show that up to 45% of children have problems during mealtimes. Below are eight common mealtime problems and tips to help you overcome them.

1. My child won’t eat anything but white rice! He’s been like this for the past two weeks. What can I do?

The insistence on eating only a certain kind of food is known as “food jags”. This happens to many children, but there’s no need to be alarmed. Coax, persuade or even tease them to eat something from each major food group. If your children are adamant about eating only fried rice for a week, try chopping up a variety of vegetables into various sizes and shapes and sneaking the greens into the rice. Also, you can add some protein foods such as chicken and beef pieces, prawn, eggs, sausages, or fish balls.

2. How can I get my two children to eat vegetables? They won’t touch anything green.

This problem could be because your children weren’t properly introduced to vegetables during the complementary feeding stage. When faced with this situation, try serving different kinds of vegetables that are cooked or prepared in various ways. Be creative and serve them in interesting, unexpected ways. You could also lead by example: eat vegetables in front of your children and make it obvious that you’re enjoying every mouthful.

3. My four-year-old son eats very little. Should I be concerned?

Not if this occurs occasionally and he’s growing well. Children have smaller stomachs, and three main meals may be more than they can handle. Try smaller portions at frequent intervals, or three small main meals and two to three well-spaced snacks throughout the day. This ensures he gets enough nutrients and energy. Think quality, not quantity – a small serving of nutritious food is more beneficial than a big helping of empty calories. Focus on what he is eating instead of how much. If your son’s poor appetite is prolonged, however, and he exhibits weight loss, he may require medical assessment.

4. My daughter’s appetite is so erratic – one day she’ll eat, the next day she won’t. Shouldn’t she be eating the same amount every day?

Variations in appetite are normal; they occur in children as well as adults. It’s good, however, to find out if your daughter likes food prepared in certain ways (for example, scrambled egg as opposed to hard-boiled). If she likes foods in a certain way, you can try preparing other foods in the same manner and see how receptive she is.

5. My children would rather run around and play than eat their food.

Your children are growing up and discovering the world around them. Unfortunately, this could lead to a temporary loss of interest in eating. This is perfectly normal and isn’t a cause for concern. However, if the problem persists and your children aren’t growing well, you may want to ask a doctor, dietician or nutritionist for help.

6. My son loves to keep food in his mouth instead of swallowing it. How can I stop him from doing this?

This could arise because your son is distracted during mealtimes. Is the TV on during lunch? Are toys strewn all over the dining table during dinner? Removing these distractions and ensuring a calm eating environment might help address the problem. Make eating the primary focus and make it enjoyable. Another reason could be that your son has had enough to eat. Are you giving him too big spoonfuls of food? Are you feeding him with adult-sized spoons? Use child-friendly cutlery instead. It helps if your child has his meal together with the whole family.

7. I try to keep my children’s mealtimes regular but sometimes it’s tough when a mealtime comes around and they’re not hungry. What can I do?

Check if your children have been munching on high-sugar or high-calorie snacks all day long. Make sure they’re also not filling up on milk and juice between meals as this could ruin their appetites. As a rule, snacks should not be given less than 1½-2 hours before a main meal.

8. Why is my child giving me such a hard time?

Mealtime problems crop up for a variety of reasons – a lack of familiarity with new foods, distractions or illness. Your children are at the age where they begin to assert their independence. They want to make their own food choices and test the limits set by their parents. This usually happens at the age of two years when they become more independent and their response to everything you want them to do (and eat) is met with a defiant “No”.

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Growth rates

AS a paediatrician, I often have parents approaching me with many questions about their children’s growth. One mother was concerned about how small her son looks compared with other kids in his class, while another was worried that her daughter’s picky eating habits would affect her growth in the long run. Just the other day, a couple wondered if their son’s rapid weight gain was a sign that he would have weight problems later on as a teenager.

As parents, we are all concerned about our children’s growth, especially during their formative years. However, questions on your child's growth cannot be answered off the bat as every child grows at his or her own rate. Comparing your children with someone else’s isn’t a reliable way of gauging growth and could lead to unnecessary worry. What you can do is keep an eye on how they’re growing and this is best done using the growth (or anthropometric) chart.

Growth charts enable parents to track their children’s growth over time and monitor how they are growing in relation to other children in that same age group. By using a growth chart to plot your child’s growth, you can detect under-nutrition, overweight and obesity, and other growth-related conditions and address them at an early stage.

There are different weight and height charts relative to age for boys and girls because their growth rates and patterns differ.

Children aged two years and above should have their weight and height measured every six months. All you need is a reliable weighing scale, a measuring board (e.g. a measuring tape properly stuck to the wall from the floor level) and the appropriate weight-for-age and height-for-age growth charts. Visit download and print the latest World Health Organisation growth charts. Specific instructions are available online to show you how to properly measure your children’s height, weight and how to plot your results on the chart.

Just because a reading is high or low on the chart doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a problem. Growth charts are designed to show your child’s growth patterns over time. This is more important than what his weight or height is at any one time.

After the first two years of life (when growth is the most rapid), children should grow along the same percentile. For instance, if your child’s weight is within the 15th percentile, he should be gaining weight steadily within the 15th percentile throughout. It is cause for concern if his weight were to drop suddenly or gradually.

Growth disturbances

How well your child grows is influenced by several factors, namely nutrition, genetics and hormones. Here are some things to watch out for when plotting your child’s weight and height:

Sudden weight drop or spike

The first thing to look at is your child's nutrition. Is he eating well? Is he lacking any nutrients? Apart from nutrition, parents should see if their children have any illnesses like urinary tract infections, a chronic illness or if they’ve just recovered from an episode of diarrhoea. All these things can cause weight loss. If the height of the child has crossed the centile lines, he may have a chronic illness.


If your child’s weight is above the 85th percentile, it means your child is overweight. It’s also useful to look at your child’s weight gain trends. For instance, he was within the 50th percentile a year ago and the figure climbed up to the 60th percentile three months later and up to the 70th percentile in another three months. This clearly means an increasing weight problem.


A weight measurement below the 15th percentile is a sign of underweight. Similar to the point above, if your child’s weight seems to be declining at each measurement.

Too tall

Is your child unusually tall for his age? This is rare and may be due to genetic factors or hormone problems.

Too short

Being short isn’t necessarily a problem as a child’s height is often influenced by his parents’ heights. However, you may be concerned if your child doesn’t register any height increases for two consecutive measurements.

In such cases, parents should bring their children to the paediatrician for a more thorough examination. The paediatrician will be able to detect if there’s something seriously wrong with your child and address the problem early on.

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What’s your child eating?

WHAT exactly is a healthy diet? It is one that has variety and balance. This is important because various foods provide different nutrients and in different amounts, and your child needs them to grow and develop healthily.

The principle of variety and balance can be seen in the Food Guide Pyramid – the essential reference for a healthy diet for young children between two and six years old.

Let’s start from the base of the pyramid – carbohydrates. These foods are good sources of energy and should make up the bulk of your child’s diet. Filling, nutritious and yet low in fat, many carbohydrate foods also provide fibre, minerals and vitamins.

The following are some examples of one serving of carbohydrate foods: 1 cup of porridge; ½ a chapatti; ½ cup of cooked rice; ½ cup of noodles; 1 slice of bread. Do vary the types of carbohydrate foods your child gets.

Let half of your child’s total carbohydrate intake come from whole grain cereal and cereal products as they are high in fibre. Do not assume that carbohydrate foods are rich in fibre just because they are brown in colour.

If your child refuses to eat whole grain foods, try combining with non-whole grain alternatives. Pair a slice of ordinary white bread with a slice of whole grain bread to make a sandwich. Mix white and brown rice.

Move one level up the Food Guide Pyramid and you have vegetables and fruits. These provide the vitamins and minerals required to build a strong immune system and ensure overall well-being.

Offer your child vegetables and fruits, the more colourful the better! Dark green (leafy vegetables), light green (pears), orange (carrots), red (tomatoes), yellow (bananas) ? let your child enjoy them all.

Fruits are best eaten fresh and whole. If you decide to give your child fruit juice, make sure it is fresh with no added sugar. Limit your child’s intake of packaged juices and fruit drinks that are high in sugar.

Many parents find that children are more receptive to fruits than vegetables. However, it is important that you give both fruits and vegetables as you cannot substitute one for the other.

Fish, lean meat, poultry, egg, beans and other bean products are good sources of protein. Many of these foods are also rich in iron, a mineral that your child needs to obtain from his diet as his iron reserves have started to deplete since he stopped breastfeeding.

Examples of one serving include 1 medium-sized chicken drumstick; 1 cup of beans; 2 matchbox-sized pieces of lean meat. However, excess protein is converted to fat and stored in the body, so give protein-rich foods in moderation. Go for lean or low-fat meat. Serve it baked, broiled or grilled instead of fried, and always discard the skin.

Your child should receive protein from animal and plant sources. Include beans, bean products and pulses in your child’s food.

Milk and dairy products are to be taken moderately. They are excellent sources of calcium and are also good sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. Examples of one serving include 1 cup of milk; 1 cup of yoghurt; or 1 slice of cheese.

Your child needs fats for physical and mental development, so go for full cream milk. Avoid sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk which have low nutritional value.

The Food Guide Pyramid doesn’t state serving sizes for “fats, oils, sweets and salt” because consumption should be kept to a minimum. So watch your child’s intake of fats and oils as excess can lead to being overweight and other health problems.

Sugar-laden foods are high in calories and most tend to be low in nutrients, so limit your child’s intake. Salt is required in small amounts and excess is unhealthy. Try not to add salt to foods. Avoid processed meats (for example, sausages and luncheon meats), and salty snack foods (for example, chips).

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