Malaysians abroad: Helping troubled children

Posted on July 14, 2003 
Filed Under Anita, The Star

By Anita Matthews

PSYCHOLOGIST Lim Eng Leong remembers his late father’s advice well. “My father always said that in whatever we do, to do it to our best and pursue it to the highest,” recalled the 42-year-old former secondary school teacher.


Coming from a middle class family, the Kuala-Lumpur born Lim could have easily followed his father into the legal world but opted to teach upon receiving his bachelor degree from University Sains Malaysia in 1984. He spent 10 memorable years teaching at secondary schools in rural parts of Selangor that also included a stint at a Petaling Jaya suburb. Yet Lim felt he was not doing enough.

“As a teacher, my responsibility was to deliver the curriculum and I was limited by what I could do. But students have all sorts of problems. One day, I found one of my students crying and upon persuasion discovered that his mother was ill and that affected his studies. Though I managed to get him to concentrate on his work that day, I felt helpless. Another parent came to see me to find out how his son coping with his studies as the boy did not talk to him at home. I found out that their problem dated back to his childhood. Teenagers and even younger kids, face a lot of challenges in their growing years,” he revealed.

Fuelled by frustration and a desire to help troubled children, Lim went on to pursue a Masters program at the University of Auckland in New Zealand followed by a postgraduate diploma in psychology and eventually a Ph D. “I evaluated my options and found NZ to be the most appealing as the education system here is similar to that back home,” he said.

Upon receiving his license to practice in 1997, Lim decided to focus on child psychology owing to his previous encounter with troubled children. He recently completed his doctorate in cognitive psychology, focussing on how children acquire problem-solving skills, especially in the area of numbers.

As one of the four registered Asian psychologists in New Zealand, Lim has the singular distinction as being the only Asian psychologist here who is working with children.

From teacher to psychologist

As a child psychologist and team leader at Kelston Intervention Centre in West Auckland, Lim devotes much of him time working with children with behavourial and learning problems. “My work is not confined to the school environment. We act as an interface between schools, parents, peadiatricians, health authorities and occupational therapists to solve problems faced by children. It is multi-agency work working with multi-disciplinary teams.”

limengleong02As a psychologist, Lim’s job is to find a solution. He is happiest if he has identified underlying issues to the particular problem affecting a child and has worked hard to achieve a positive outcome. He has also learnt to be emotionally uninvolved and maintains a professional distance on the job. “It is hard work to listen without being emotionally affected. I have to draw a line and not take work home and know when enough.”

Although he concurred that there are differences between Kiwi and Malaysian cultures, he pointed out that much of the problems faced by children in both societies are similar. For instance, children from broken homes and those who are abused transcend cultures. “What teenagers here go through is very similar to what Malaysian teens go through.”

He added that parenting is the same across any geography with those who stay ahead with available literature on parenting techniques and others who simply don’t know how to deal with a disobedient child. These even be well-read professionals who are busy or facing their own personal demons.

“On the other extreme are dysfunctional families with children that have undergone more than normal folks have in a lifetime. These children are often left to fend on their own in the streets,” he added

The difference, he said, is the upbringing, the environment and how problems are addressed. According to Lim, Kiwi children value their independence and most leave home at a relatively young age. Malaysian parents do their best to keep their children home for as long as possible or at least until they get married.

Having studied and worked in this area for the last nine years, Lim is quick to concede that horror stories are aplenty. It is unlikely to decline given the growing numbers of families with problems. At Kelston, Lim and his team help equip teachers and parents from surrounding neighbourhoods with the right skills to do the job. For instance if a teacher notes a child with a behavorial problem, Lim and his team will observe the child in his or her natural environment rather than adopt the clinic-based approach of bringing the child to a foreign environment. “We run a series of assessments depending on the issue to nail the problem and present solutions.” Miracles, however, don’t happen overnight.

He recounted a case of a girl who was chatty at home yet completely silent at school. “Once she walked into school, she clammed up and we realised it was specific to the environment. So we slowly desensitised her by first pairing her with a neighbour’s kid for class and got her involved in speech related activities like fun games and reading. Over time, the pair joined small group, then a larger group and eventually we took the group to the class. The whole process took over a year and by then, she had become more verbal,” he said.

Lim said that the team was fortunate as the school authorities were supportive and agreed to have the parents tape their daughter reading at home to make sure she kept pace with lessons taught. “When the parents came to us, they were very frustrated and threatened the child for not speaking. We got the parents to back off, as it was no point adding pressure to the situation. The only thing the child could control was her speech - it was her way of controlling the environment,” he declared.

Cultivating children

Lim’s advice to parents when children show odd behaviour is to seek professional advice to work through the issues as there are many factors that affect a child’s behaviour. He pointed out that the punishment method works in the short term but not in the long run in correcting a child’s behaviour. “If you smack them as children, it might help the immediate situation but over time, this sort of punishment loses its effect and the scary thing is that you might find that you have to start hitting harder and harder. What happens when they grow up? One day, when they are bigger, they might hit back,” Lim argued.

His advice to Malaysian and Asian parents is to train their children when they are young on how to make the right choices. “From my observation, many children in Malaysia are consistently told what to do when they are young. Unfortunately for some of them, when they grow up and get their first taste of freedom, they can’t handle it because they have not learnt how to make decisions for themselves. So when they are faced with options, they don’t know how to make the right choice,” he argued.

Lim speaks from experience having dealt with many teenage Asian students at high schools and Auckland University who went out of control once away from their families simply because there is no longer anyone to tell them what to do.

How does one teach a child to be responsible? It is not difficult, said Lim. Start from an as early as possible. Parents can begin by allowing their six-and-seven-year-olds to choose what they want to wear and if they make the wrong choice by dressing inappropriately like wearing a sweater on a hot day, they will face the consequences of feeling sweaty.

“As soon as they can think for themselves, let them decide as long as there is no harm done in that decision. They will learn the natural consequences to be faced for not having listened as in the case of dressing inappropriately.”

Parents can also teach children about managing money wisely by allowing children to spend within a certain range and limit the choices to five things. This, he added, helps them to think about how to make the right choices and shapes future decision making, especially in teenage life.

Lim added that once a child reaches the teenage years, chances are they are unlikely to listen to parents and prefer the company of friends or opinions of the media. “Parents have only a limited number of years to establish a relationship with their kids. So if you don’t engage them when they are young, it will difficult to do so when they are older.”

While he concedes that most parents are busiest when their children are younger, Lim believes that quality time pays off. But take heart, parents still can relate to their teenagers. “Parents would have to work to get involved in the teenagers lives and do the things they do.”

And Lim does practice what he preaches. Married with two sons and a daughter, Lim spends a lot of time cultivating his children in shared outdoor activities.

Is returning to Malaysia on the cards for Lim? “That is a tough question and something I always ask myself and think of often. I miss my family and support of an extended family,” he confided.

Lim, whose father passed away recently, remembers too that he must attain to the highest what he has set out to pursue.

Name: Lim Eng Leong
Hometown: Kuala Lumpur
Years spent abroad: Nine
Age: 42
Education: Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur; Universiti Sains Malaysia, University of Auckland, New Zealand
Current Base: Auckland, New Zealand
Occupation: Child psychologist; team leader at Kelston Intervention Team, West Auckland.

Published in The Star, July 14, 2003

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