I Worry about My Son Who Cries When He Struggles with Homework

Dear Troubleshooter:

I’m a homemaker in my 50s. I would like advice about my son, a fifth-grade elementary school student.

When my son has trouble doing his homework, whether it’s from school or cram school, he asks me to help him. In those instances, either my husband or I will sit down with him and help with his studies. But when he finds a problem difficult to solve or comes across something he struggles to understand, he breaks out in tears.

When this happens, the switch to his thought process goes off and nothing works, no matter what my husband and I say to him. He can’t even figure out things he used to understand. He cries almost every time he does his homework.

My husband and I do all we can not to get angry with him so he won’t cry, but it doesn’t help and he won’t stop crying. As a result, my husband and I end up scolding him.

My son has been like this since he was in second grade. I suspect that he has a mental disability.

As parents, we have been wondering how to deal with him. My husband doesn’t want to see a counselor, saying that it is probably just his personality.

— N, Tokyo

Dear Ms. N:

The image of you and your husband sitting with your son to help him with studies is heartwarming, but it must be difficult for the both of you to swing between feeling good and bad depending on how well your son has understood the material.

You say that your son begins to cry when he cannot solve a problem. I think he is probably a serious child with a strong desire to succeed and achieve. All children have needs for approval from their parents, but your son’s needs for perfection might be even stronger than others.

In such a case, the words you say to your son become very important. I understand that it’s difficult to remain calm in the face of your son’s constant crying, but he is filled with frustration at not being able to figure out his homework. If parents scold children at times like these, there could be even more damage done to the child’s psyche.

Rather, I would like you to teach him about the importance of his approach to his assignments, saying things like: “You are trying to do your homework properly. I think that’s very good,” or “It’s OK if you don’t understand the questions. It is important that you keep working, thinking about things and not giving up. That will definitely help you.”

Advice from others is also important. I think it’s a good idea to seek counseling, but I hope you can find the positive aspects in your child and encourage him before you assume he has a mental disability.

— Masami Ohinata, university president