Parenting is tough. Unfortunately, our children aren’t born with a manual and there aren’t any black and white rules of parenting. That makes our jobs confusing, especially when it comes to understanding our children’s mental health.
It can be difficult to distinguish signs of a mental health disorder from normal childhood behavior.
When my daughter was three, she was a relentless ball of fun, energy and very high emotion. Sometimes, she’d have a temper tantrum about something critical to her, “NO! I don’t want to wear my pink tennis shoes,” she’d cry and scream leaving me feeling perplexed, unsure and a little scared.
Her fury was so great, that I remember worrying that perhaps she had crossed a line of some sort. Was this tantrum a display of an abnormal amount of emotion? Was she physically sick? I even wondered at times if she was she mentally ill.
I went so far as asking a friend, a child psychiatrist, if she thought these types of behaviors were signs of a larger issue. My friend reminded me that at three years old, children have early separation issues and this wild behavior was her unconscious way of testing me: “Will my mommy love me even if I scream, cry and refuse affection?”
I realized after talking to my friend, and doing my own observations, that her tantrums were strong but she’d bounce back and recover fairly quickly.
But not everyone has a friend who is a child psychiatrist. What should we be asking ourselves when we are worried about our children and their overall well being and mental health?
It’s important to understand that not every temper tantrum, aggressive behavior or meltdown is a sign of a major mental health disorder.
Signs that children may be having trouble are varied depending on their developmental age. But here are some things to keep in mind:
–Hyperactivity beyond what the other kids are doing
–Excessive fear, worrying, or crying
–Extreme disobedience or aggression.
–Lots of temper tantrums all the time with the inability to sooth
–Persistent difficulty separating
We also must be alert and hone in on the details of our children’s specific behaviors. By looking at the full scope of their interactions and evaluating behavior patterns, you may uncover indicators of a larger, more pressing issue that requires professional treatment.
Areas to evaluate include home, school, friends, family and self. What you are looking for is how intense and frequent their disruptive behaviors are.
While observing your child, ask yourself a series of questions, some of which can include:
- Can my child let go of anger, frustration, sadness? How long does it take?
- Is my child arguing over the same thing all the time? Can he/she let it go?
- Is my child withdrawn and not happy?
- Does my child have difficulty engaging?
- Is there an inability for my child to find things to do? Is he/she excessively bored?
- How well does my child handle quiet time?
- Does my child do things to hurt him/herself?
- Are there drastic and sudden changes in my child’s behavior (sleeping, eating, toilet habits)?
- Does my child have an ability to be empathetic?
- Does my child avoid different people in our family?
If you’ve identified areas or behaviors that seem concerning to you, it’s important to organize facts and talk with a professional such as your child’s family doctor. Let them know what you’ve observed and be prepared with clear and concise examples to help them better identify and properly recommend the next course of action.
A worksheet to help you organize your observations:
1. List specific problematic behaviors that indicate emotional turmoil. Talk to teachers, daycare providers and others involved with your child on a day-to-day basis. What times of day are these behaviors occurring? What is the setting? What were the circumstances?
2. Make a guess, and define, what you think your child’s emotional turmoil might be. It’s invaluable for the healthcare professional to hear what’s going on in your parental gut and head.
3. What might be the cause of the turmoil? A lot of times, you may have a good inkling as to where this behavior is coming from. For example, are you going through a divorce? Is there an alcoholic parent? Make some thoughtful guesses about what YOU think is going on. Don’t judge yourself. Just be honest.
4. In what way has your child’s emotional turmoil affected the family? Ask yourself, how is this affecting everyday life for you and others in your family?
5. What have I done to make this situation better? Specifically, what has worked? And then, what hasn’t worked and why?
If necessary, your healthcare professional will recommend a local facility, program or clinician that they trust.
But no matter what, stay closely involved. Your child needs you to advocate for him/her and be ready to participate in the solution.
- Look for ways to have fun and relax together. Spend time in nature. Lay in the grass and look at cloud formations, go for a walk around the park and collect bugs.
- Notice strengths and praise them. Catch your child being good! It does wonders for their self-esteem and your bond together.
- Sign up for a parent/child yoga class or get them involved in extra activities that might not be offered at school and help them express creativity.
- The more positive experiences you have together, the more you can help your child thrive and develop confidence. And the more you can help promote your child’s success.
By: Polly Drew, M.Ed., LMFT, LSCW, for the Healthy Moms Magazine
Polly Drew is a psychotherapist who specializes in relationship, marital and family issues. She has been honored locally and nationally for her contributions to the field of mental health and Marriage and Family therapy. Polly was born and raised in Wisconsin and is a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Education. She has a master’s degree from Kent State University in Ohio, two years of post-master’s training in marriage and family therapy and over 25 years in private psychotherapy practice in Colorado and Wisconsin. She is licensed as an Independent Clinical Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist by the State of Wisconsin. For more advice from Polly visit: Rehabs.com and Recovery.org.