Difficult to gauge connection on cyberspace

I am very lonely and alone. I met someone in August and we have been chatting. Recently it was his birthday, and his ex-wife invited him for a braai. He was a bit reluctant to go, but I said he should do it for his son. They divorced three years ago, and she has had a baby with another person. She wants him back. I am not sure if he is confused. I tried to talk to him earlier, but his response was “okay”. Should I just leave?

You don’t provide me with sufficient information, so I am going to try my best to answer you based on what you have provided.

I am not sure if you were only “chatting” in cyberspace or in person. However, it seems there was not much commitment from either of you from the start.

It is really difficult these days with social media and connecting in cyberspace without actually physically making contact and seeing each other face to face.

Relationships, by their very nature, are challenging and precarious in the beginning as you are still getting to know each other.

However, via social media, there are so many added layers of complexity, including feeling or being seemingly close/open while simultaneously being distant, literally and figuratively.

So, it is quite easy to feel a sense of opening up to another and, with this closeness, not being alone anymore. However, the person not being present and able to see and actually hear and feel their words, thoughts and emotions can lead to all possible misinterpretations, unspoken fears and wishes.

If he was reluctant to see his ex-wife and then after visiting her for the braai, he seems distant and his response was “okay”, as you state, maybe he still has strong feelings for her, and what does this mean for you?

Did you commit to each other? What did you try to talk to him about? If his ex-wife wants him back and he is unsure of being with you, maybe he was not totally over her and, as a result, not available emotionally.

Maybe, there was nothing deeper than “friendship” for him, and you may have “read” too much into the “chatting”. I am not sure and encourage you to think deeper about your situation.

Trust your deeper gut feeling mostly (not your ego, which is often wishes and desires). However, at the same time, think about why you would be with someone with whom there is no real emotional commitment.

Is this a pattern for you hence your sense of loneliness and being alone in the world?

Perhaps seeing a counsellor at Families South Africa (FAMSA), with whom you can explore relationship patterns, which often have their roots in families of origin, will be helpful for you inwardly and your future relationships.

I read your articles regularly in Southern Mail, the Athlone News’s sister newspaper and wondered if you could help me or refer me to someone. My eight-year-old son needs counselling, as he is experiencing something almost like an anxiety disorder, and we need tools on how to cope with this. I don’t want this to affect his schooling.

I am pleased that you are supportive in helping your child deal with his emotional difficulties.

Untreated anxiety can be disruptive of children’s social, psychological and academic development, and the sooner it is addressed, the better.

Anxiety symptoms are not just about being shy and outgrowing it, but can severely disrupt and limit a child’s life.

The common response to anxiety for children (and adults) is avoidance of the situation or object, causing anxiety. Unfortunately, this is counterproductive and, in the long run, exacerbates the anxiety.

The common therapeutic treatment for anxiety, beside medication such as anti-depressants and anxiolytics, is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which, as it suggests, addresses the underlying thoughts and concomitant behaviours that cause and maintain the anxiety symptoms.

Thus, CBT is based on the idea that how we think and act both affect how we feel. By changing thinking that is distorted, and behaviour that is “dysfunctional”, we can change our emotions. With younger children, focusing first on the behavioural part of CBT can be most effective.

The goal is, essentially, to unlearn avoidant behaviour. One of the most important techniques in CBT for children with anxiety is called exposure and response prevention.

The basic idea is that the child is exposed to the things that trigger his/her anxiety in structured, incremental steps, and in a safe setting.

As they become accustomed to each of the triggers, in turn, the anxiety fades, and they are ready to take on increasingly powerful ones.

Exposure therapy is very different from traditional talk therapy, in which the patient and a therapist might explore the roots of the anxiety, in the hope of changing his or her behaviour.

In exposure therapy, the focus is on changing the behaviour to address and decrease fearful response patterns.

Exposure therapy is effective for different kinds of anxiety, including separation anxiety, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and social anxiety.

For children with anxiety disorders, the process begins by helping them, and their parents, get some distance from the anxiety and start thinking of it as an aspect that is separate from who they are.

One way to do this is by having them conceptualise it as a “bully in the brain” and encouraging them to give the bully a name and talk back to it.

They may name it for example, Worrying Will, Mr Bossy Boots or The Joker.

CBT therapists explain that they will help by teaching skills to handle the bully, helping the child to understand that they can control their anxiety rather than it controlling them.

Adopting Robert Frost’s observation that “the only way around is through,” exposure therapy slowly and systematically helps a child face their fears so they can learn to tolerate their anxiety until it subsides rather than reacting by seeking reassurance, escaping, avoidance or engaging in ritualistic behaviours such as hand washing.

However, first engaging a child’s trust is a vital ingredient in helping them to tackle these emotional difficulties. Contact a therapist in your area for further help.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist.

While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column or refer you to organisations that can assist.

You can write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za Send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.