Detecting emotional problems in children

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Raghav* is a usual 9 year old. He is an active child with many friends at his school. His mother, a single parent, has put Raghav in a well reputed school, involved him in numerous hobbies and sports, and spends the weekend with him. Everything seemed to be going good, but over the past few weeks, Raghav seemed to have become a little quiet. His academic performance also started declining. He started complaining of a stomach ache and the doctors could not find any cause. This stomach ache would increase in the afternoon. His mother was worried and consulted a counselor. Sessions with Raghav revealed that he was being bullied by an older boy during coaching. This had lead to severe anxiety and a drop in confidence and self esteem. When he tried to tell his coach, he was called a sissy. So Raghav decided to keep this to himself. The stomach ache that he complained was a sign of his anxiety and a way for him to guard himself against being bullied. Luckily the cause was found out before it became more serious.

Emotional, psychological and behavioral health is an important part of every child’s healthy development and well-being. So what are these emotional or psychological problems to look out for? Emotional problems occur due to stress, traumatic events and the child not being able to cope with new or difficult situations like seen in Raghav’s case. Such disorders include anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and complaints of physical illness with no apparent cause, depression, and other disorders found in adults

To understand the child emotions, it is important as parents and caregivers to understand that children often respond to emotional experiences and stressful events in ways that are very different from adults. They understand, think, and talk about their experiences differently from adults as the capacity to think about and express their emotions is not yet well-developed. So it is very easy to overlook emotional pain and psychological disorders in children, even by professionals as seen in the case of Raghav. And if not handled in time, they can turn in to lasting psychological disorders.

But there is some good news! If emotional and even psychological problems in children are detected early on and the needed intervention is given, there can be a very positive effect on outcomes for children; even with serious disorder. Like in Raghav’s case, due to the parent’s quick reaction to what she noticed, the root cause was detected and action was taken to protect Raghav from the bully. Also psychological support helped him recover his confidence and self esteem. Like in medicine, Psychological first-aid can help lessen the impact of the stressful event.

 

As early detection is important, to detect such disorders, there are some basic warning signs to keep in mind:

  • Keep the normal age of reaching developmental milestones in mind.emo_back
  • Look out for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school.
  • The child may show social withdrawal or may not be able to act in a socially acceptable way.
  • Intense feelings like overwhelming fear, excessive crying for no reason or worries or fears intense enough to interfere with daily activities.
  • Drastic changes in behavior or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behavior which continue for long.
  • Look for signs of trouble focusing or sitting still, both of which might lead to poor performance in school.
  • Avoiding of certain people or places.
  • Reporting physical complaints like aches or discomfort without any biological cause.
  • Child may show behaviors that have been previously forgotten like sucking thumb after the child has learnt not to.
  • Unexplained change in weight, sudden loss of appetite or even binge eating.
  • Sometimes a mental health condition leads to suicidal thoughts or actual attempts at self-harm.

Although many enduring mental health problems have their origins in the early years, many behavioral or emotional difficulties in children and even adolescents are temporary. For example children may become moody or show extreme emotions during puberty. These are normal changes and sort themselves out as the child matures. If you do see any of the signs mentioned above, keep the following in mind before labeling the child with a disorder as labeling can be as or more harmful to the child’s health and well being as any disorder:

  • The symptoms should be see over some time and should not be a one-off incident.
  • If problems are due to a specific cause, only be concerned if problems persist even after situation has passed and the cause no longer exists.
  • Make sure that symptoms are there at different places as well like home, school, and playground.
  • Talk to everyone interacting with the child like teachers, sports coach and even helpers at home or school to know if the symptoms are persisting.
  • Only rely on trustworthy sources for symptoms and don’t diagnose your child based on half baked knowledge.
  • If ever in doubt, consult your doctor, a counselor or a psychologist.

Helping the child cope with emotional problems

emo_secondWith childhood emotional problems or disorders, the child will need some form of therapy and may even need medication. And if therapy starts early, the child can be helped to cope with the problems and overcome them to a large extent. For example in case of asperger’s syndrome, the individual faces difficulty in social interactions. But if training and therapy starts early, the person can overcome awkwardness to a large extent.

Emotional problems can be treated before they become disorders, but there is no sure way of avoiding emotional problems in children. We can work at prevention by helping children becoming emotionally stronger and have confidence to be able to cope with stress and change.

As a parent or caregiver, it is also very important that you listen to the child. At times it feels like the child is over reacting or is asking for attention. Always start with giving a lending ear. In Raghav’s case, if the coach had actually heard his plight, he would have been saved of a lot of pain and suffering. So it is important to give children time to express themselves. Give the child a safe place to speak, a place where they are not judges or criticized. Reassure them. This will make them feel strong and confident and they will not be scared or shy to discuss their problems with you.

Never avoid a problem. If you notice anything unusual, consult a professional. As mentioned, earlier you detect a problem; the better will be the outcome. As a parent, go with your instincts on what you feel is right. But do not transfer your anxieties to the child. With children, problems will arise every day, talk to other parents about how they deal with such problems and learn from each other’s experiences.

It is important to remember that children will not tell you what is bothering them like adults would. They might make absurd stories, draw what they are feeling or act out. Do not overlook this as whimsical fantasies or attention seeking. Try to look for causes behind anything unusual. And finally by making children feel that they are heard and by reassuring them despite adversities, we can help them become emotionally strong and able to cope with daily stresses of life.

If you realize that your child is suffering from a psychological problem, do not let stigma get in your way of getting your child help. Many children and adults today have been through psychological distress and have overcome it as they got the right help at the right time. It really does not matter what others think. Your child’s well being is most important. So be alert and help your child have a mentally and physically healthy life!

*Name changed to protect identity.

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About Author

Tamanna Chhabra

Tamanna Chhabra is a Clinical Psychologist from New Delhi. She specializes in child and adolescent mental health. Her areas of interest are effective parenting, early childhood attachment and social relations, expressive art therapies and children in difficult situations . She loves to travel and when she is not working she is exploring different cultures and cuisines.

22 Comments

  1. Hi mam

    Very nice article can u please guide abt a kid I m.a shadow teacher in dubai he is very bright intelligent but the school says tht he is having behaviour disorder does not listen to teacher sometime but he is better than bfore but still gets hyper sometimes like not coming back from school to home he is going with ABA therapy at home also wht the school expecting nog getting exactly he is fs 1 kid can u pls guide me

  2. Tamanna Chhabra on

    Dear Heena

    For this child it may be important to understand where the behavioral problems are arising. A good start would be the liaise with the child’s therapist to understand what works with the child. At times it becomes even more difficult with very intelligent children as they may be ahead of the pace of the class. Making the class more engaging for such children by providing exercises and or quizzing them beyond the scope of the class (in a fun and engaging manner!) has been seen to work.

    Hope this helps you.

  3. Hi,
    My son is going to be four years in few days. He is doing very well in oral and when it comes to writing he doesn’t want to do. And his teacher says he picks up things very fast but he doesn’t listen she says he has what is up in his mind. Is this a normal behavior or its a problem. He doesn’t sits; keep s on running . Do I need to consult for this.
    Please suggest me something.
    Thanks
    Sukhbir

    • hi
      see where and how you can give him more attention ,sit wid him ,engage in hours of activity (jus send them into t classes wont help , if its one of this ,he mite b asking a “connecting time ” ) …. chk the diet ,sugar intak , junk food ……family emotional stability ….
      if he has elder ? ” mak him feel important in ur life ,let him do for you , wid you ,giv him more chances of coming important …….
      2nd siblings face this often ,as every thing is taken care of …………

  4. Tamanna Chhabra on

    Hi Sukhbir,

    Though running around, not sitting and not wanting to write is not very uncommon at age four, it could be indicative of a tendency. It will be helpful to ask different teachers if this is a consistent pattern and it’s intensity. If it is remarkably high you could consult the school counselor.

    With children who have a lot of energy, involving them in sports or games that are tiring and productive is a good way to channelize their energy. Try taking him to the park before school and play with him. If things remain the same then a visit a counselor or a child psychologist who will be able gauge the situation better.

    Hope this helps!

  5. Hi
    My daughter is 5 yrs old ; good in studies.. Intelligent; but when her school gets over she sucks her thumb continuously… Tried all methods.. Gv her more attention; even asked her teacher for help… As a result of thumb sucking she has a bad diet. Plz advice

  6. Tamanna Chhabra on

    Hi Surabhi

    There could be various reasons for thumb sucking. It could be feeling insecure, anxiety or just a habit. It’s great that you have tried talking to the teacher and are giving her attention, but it is important to try to find out the cause for the same. As thumb sucking is quite common till age four, it might just be a continuation of the same. Some children continue the habit to as late as 12-15 years to relieve hunger as well. Try to rule out any of these possibilities.

    There are some behavior management techniques that you could try. As she is busy in school, the thumb sucking does not happen there. So try to distract her. Play a game that is interesting and requires both hands to reduce thumb sucking. Also do not pay attention to the thumb sucking as it may become a method to get attention. Instead praise her when she is not sucking her thumb. Any negative attention needs to be avoided. You can have a neutral word to remind her if she is doing the problem behavior, but don’t directly keep pointing it out. Thumb sucking beyond the age of four years can be harmful to the child as it can cause dental and speech issues. If the problem persists you could consult an orthodontist for devices to stop thumb sucking.

  7. my child is 9 Yrs old but he is still afraid to sleep alone. He wants someone to be nearby Him. And from few days he cries for small things like when i go play nobody listens to me, nobody makes me play with them

  8. Tamanna Chhabra on

    The signs could be indicative of anxiety or low confidence in your child that are not very uncommon, but need to be worked with. To get a clearer picture, a detailed history and interaction with your child will be needed. It is advised that you meet a child counsellor or a psychologist who will be able to assess the situation and advise techniques to overcome the fear and complaining.

  9. Hi..My daughter is four year old .she is good at grasping the things but at same time she is concentrating at many things. Her school teacher use to say about her that she is continuously speaking and moving in class room either with her classmates or with herself as making stories.she writes with her left hand …similarly many times she writes the numbers or letters exactly opposite ..even many times she starts reading numbers also opposite..like for 13 ..she reads 3 first then 1 ..and get confuse ..how to solve this..plz reply.

  10. Tamanna Chhabra on

    Hi Priyanka,

    Firstly don’t worry about her writing with her left hand. Around 15% people in the world are reported to be left handed and left handed people are reported to be creative. Further, writing with the left hand has nothing to do with reading or writing wrong.

    Regarding her level of activity and inversion of numbers, she will require behaviour management. There is a need to use her energy; hence involving her in games and sports is very necessary. Use her story telling and energy in a constructive manner. Ask her teacher to keep giving her tasks that involve running about, like passing worksheets or toys. Stopping her will only conserve her energy and cause more problematic behaviours.

    The symptoms mentioned can be indicators of further issues. She is too young for a diagnosis, but can be screened to be at risk. Hence it is necessary you meet a psychologist who will be able to screen her symptoms and give a structured behaviour plan for home and school. Early intervention is essential.

  11. I really liked your article. Thank you. I think people refrain themselves for asking help from child therapist, which needs lot of eye opening.
    Thanks again. Will be looking forward to your articles.

    • Tamanna Chhabra on

      Thank you Shraddha.
      Please comment about topics you would like to know about. We will try to include them in future articles.

  12. Very nice article tamanna ji.. I son is 3 and half year old. I stay with my parents, his father is out of india. My problem is that my son dont want to go school. Its his age to go to nursery school for which we tried this year. Last year also we took admission for play school but he didnt go. He just dont want to go school or sits there with any of the family members but dont want to sit alone. For opposing us he cries alot, sometimes becomes physical also for making us understand that he dont want go to school. He dont want to wake up early for not going to school. He says in bed only that he wants to sleep and dont want to go to school. While getting ready also every now and then he cries for not going to school. We have changed his school 3 times, fir these two years of play group and nursery. Atlas currently he is not going to any school and is at home only. He is good in learning things and catches everything, his observation skills are very good. But his not going to school problem makes me disturb. He wants to mix with other children but just want to beat them or wants to run with them. He is very obsessive about vehicle toys. Makes us buy any car toy by his stubborn behaviour. Please guide me.

    • Tamanna Chhabra on

      In your child’s situation, a detailed developmental history and interaction with your child will be required to guide you further. You need to visit a clinical psychologist. There is a need to rule out any development related issue. And applied behaviour analysis by a psychologist will help you deal with his behaviour better which can be provided by a clinical psychologist.

      In the meantime; try involving him in some group classes where there are lesser children. Child psychologists also have group sessions for children to aid interaction. Early intervention is the key in this situation.

  13. Hai, am a single parent of two and half year son. He was an obedient n very active boy. I put him to pre nursery wen he was 23 months . First he was didn’t wan to go n crying but now he is fine loves school n friends but doesn’t open up much at school, to me he would everything. Am a strict mum and as we are in a joint family I insist more of discipline. I would tell him certain things n if he dosnt listen den shout at him or Sumtimes spak him also.and he would still listen to me.
    But for the past two weeks his behaviours are abnormal, middle of nite he wakes up frm sleep crying n wen I try to console him he would bite me n hit me, if I resist he starts crying n it becomes nonstop.And some how when I had consoled he will start reacting or speaking like a child who is trying to speak for the first time n when he does dat I’v noticed dat he is drooling too much.He is showing out too much tantrum and if I try to divert with things he likes he dosnt want it n he grabs it n throws it down(like he loves to watch his favourite rhyme on my mobile, but when he is crying n adamant he will grab my mobile n throw it down n dosnt want me to pick it up again).
    Thinking that my shouting or hitting him is disturbing him , I’v reduced it a lot , at the most I ask him why he did like dat and take him away from the scene. But still he is the same , even last nite he woke up from sleep crying n when I tried to console him he took my hand n bite my thumb very hard. But he is fine in school n at home when he is busy playing he is fine. But when he starts crying or when he starts becoming adamant for something and inbetween sleep he is behaving very abnormal. I didn’t see my son like this before, he is a fast learner n a naughty boy like most of this age. I was thinking if I’ll take him to a child psychologist, n den I saw ur blog n thought of texting u n here I am.
    Plz let me know what should I be doing to see my son happy n normal again.

    • Tamanna Chhabra on

      Hi Monica

      The signs that you are describing could be indicative of anxiety or some sort of fear. You need to stop hitting your child completely and focus on being firm instead if scolding.

      Try to spend some fun leisure time with your child, reading him stories or playing with him. I also suggest you ask the teacher to carefully observe him and report any different behaviour. You should visit a child psychologist with the school report and with your concerns. In such a situation, it is important for a psychologist to interact with the child to understand the cause of the problem and the use of some expressive therapies may also be helpful. A psychologist will also help you in understanding how to deal with his behaviour as each child id different and may need a different approach to parenting.

  14. Hi mam! My son is of 6years. He is good learner. But from last one year, he become very lazy and takes a lot of time to do anything. His school work mostly remained incomplete. Even if any other child tease him, then he didn’t not complaint to his teacher or to me at home. As last year, I have second baby too. He loves his sister so much. When he was born I was a working women. But when he become 1.5yrs I left my job for him. Remained at home, my anxieties transferred to him. I usually beat him and yelled so much. Now I have regret for d same too. But at that time I was too stressful as I was so carrier oriented woman and also was in conservative joint family. Now I am separated from in-laws. Everything is OK. But I am little bit afraid of my son. That his andmine past doesn’t harm him in future. Please help me and give advise. Thx n rgds

    • Tamanna Chhabra on

      Hi Nitu

      The behaviour you are reporting is not healthy for a six year old. He seems to have an emotional problem. I hope you are not hitting him anymore. I understand you feel regret at your past behaviour, but this needs to be rectified as soon as possible.

      Make him meet a clinical psychologist/child psychologist as soon as possible. His emotional needs have to be catered to soon. And the psychologist will be able to guide you on how to parent him according to his needs.

      You should start with some activities that he enjoys. He needs one on one time with his parents. It can be difficult with a baby at home, but you need to take out alone time with him. Play his favorite games, read him a story, or even cook with him. Follow this advice and let a psychologist guide you further after meeting him.

  15. anindita shil on

    Hello mam, my daughter age is 4.5 years, she is in lower infant(lower kg) in school, good at studies, favourite to her class teacher. But from last 3 months suddenly she started stammering. We are very upset for this problem. She is a very soft spoken and sensitive child,doesn’t talk to much.should we seek help of pediatric doctors or consult a child psychologist?what should we do to help her?please mam guide us.

    • Tamanna Chhabra on

      Stammering usually occurs in children around 3-5 years of age. And not all children grow out of it. The best course of action is to visit a speech and language therapist at the earliest. Children benefit maximum from speech therapy till the age of 5 or 6 years.

      Along with professional help you need to follow certain tips at home. Try to focus on what your child is saying and not how. It must be very distressing for you to see your child struggle, but doe not show your negative emotions to your child. Treat the stammering in a ‘matter of fact’ manner and don’t use labels. Refer to the stammering as bouncy speech or speech-breakers. And finally avoid being rushed in your communication. Along with working on her speech with a professional, it is essential not to let her loose her confidence.

  16. Hello mam,
    My son is 9 years old, very intelligent boy, he grasp very well . But from Nursery onwards there were lots of complaints from school about him that he was very hyperactive, doesnt sit on a place, pushes or beat other children. We had tried lot of stuffs to make him understand, but the problem is still there. We are really very depressed about him. Please guide us.

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