Emotional Health in Children – How to Help Children with Emotional Problems

by on May 3rd, 2011 at 7:00 am

Children are resilient and can cope with many difficult experiences, but sometimes their emotional health suffers. The world is a large and sometimes scary place. The playground may not always be fun and games and growing up is not easy. As parents, we hope to have happy, well-adjusted children, and want for nothing more.

But, what should we look out for? We investigate the three main conditions causing emotional distress in children today. The three most common childhood problems seen by Psychologists are Childhood Depression, Anxiety and ADD:

Childhood Depression - While a little melancholy here and there during childhood is expected, childhood depression seems to be rife in today’s modern world. This may be due to a variety of factors such as not fitting in at school, peer pressure or self-image issues. More often than not, childhood depression can be dealt with and the prognosis is good. Understandably though, parents are extremely concerned when depression is mentioned with regards to young children. The term of being ‘depressed’ is often used casually and sometimes too flippantly to describe a low mood – perhaps this is a sign of our times and the media attention drawn to depression in recent years.

One thing is certain; depression should be taken seriously, in adults as well as children. If you notice that your child is not eating, seems dejected, has sleep trouble (either sleeps too much or too little) and withdraws from family and friends, it is essential that steps be taken to obtain a correct diagnosis and address any underlying issues. A child should have an evaluation by a registered Clinical Psychologist, if any of the above symptoms persist beyond a week or two – with no ‘normal’ mood at all.

Tips for parents: What to look for…

  • Any new pattern of angry outbursts, disciplinary problems in school, and aggressive or negative behaviors, including looking or acting bored, especially if your child does not have a past history of such behaviors.
  • An overabundance of sleep, withdrawing and sleeping after school, or refusing to get out of bed. In older adolescents, you’re more likely to see patterns of trouble falling asleep and early morning awakening.
  • Significant weight loss or gain in a few months. Although it can vary, it is typical of older teens to lose weight, while younger children and young teens may gain significantly.
  • Irregularity of bowel movements. Withholding or ‘accidents’ in children that are old enough to control their bowel movements.
  • Sudden negative changes in youngsters’ interest or performance, including a drop in grades, disciplinary problems, lack of completing homework, etc.
  • A reaction more severe and longer than would normally be expected following a death, divorce, a move to a new school, etc. Typically, children can adapt to these stressors within several weeks to, in the case of a death, up to a year.
  • A child who loses interest and pleasure in activities that he or she previously found a source of enjoyment.
  • A child gives up old friends and there may be a shift in the type of friends with whom the child spends time to a group perceived as less desirable by parents.
  • Children may complain of stomachaches or headaches. These complaints may be accompanied by a withdrawal from typical activities, social life, and a refusal to go to school. These complaints are cause for concern and should be explored.

Listen well to children when they express a sense of hopelessness. Take young children and teens seriously if they verbalize that they have no hope for the future.

If your Clinical Psychologist identifies depression, therapy will be recommended and will vary according to the age and abilities of the child. Younger children are more likely to undergo play therapy or art therapy, while teenagers are more suited to therapy involving expressing their feelings and learning skills to cope with the problems that face them. Family therapy and parent counseling may also be recommended, depending on the underlying problems identified.

What about medication?

Children with depression normally respond very well to therapeutic intervention without the need for prescription drugs. Unfortunately antidepressant drugs are often prescribed for children – even as a first resort. Parents should always research the drugs prescribed before agreeing to give them to their children and even seek a second opinion when in doubt.

Commonly prescribed allopathic drugs for depression can come with harsh side effects and often lead to further conditions, and further medication. Children are precious and need to be treated in a safe and gentle but effective manner
Childhood Anxiety - All children feel a little anxious at certain stages in their lives – the first days of school, meeting new friends, or swimming in the school gala can produce the normal nervous jitters and ‘butterflies’ in the tummy. However some children become excessively worried about certain things – and it affects their daily lives. Perhaps a child is too attached to a parent, and he or she will not leave mom’s side.

Perhaps a child frets excessively after the death of a loved one, and worries about being abandoned. School bullying can also cause great distress in children at school, leading to physical symptoms of ‘sore tummies’ and a children not wanting to attend class. This is why communication is vital – and an open pathway of communication should be kept at all times between parents and their child.

Behavioral issues can arise during childhood for a variety of reasons and often accompany anxiety. An anxious child is more likely to act out, cry and become aggressive towards others.

Tips for parenting an anxious child:

  • Encourage and reward independent activities. Ask your child to teach a doll or a stuffed animal how to be more confident. However, do not force your child into situations that are too difficult – you will only create more anxiety.
  • Explain new situations in advance in a simple, friendly manner.
  • Try role playing to prepare for upcoming situations.
  • Help with bedtime fears by buying your child a night light or a new and specific stuffed animal, a “special companion,” which can help him feel less scared at bedtime.
  • Be aware that apparent daydreaming and concentration problems at school may be caused by your child’s preoccupation with fears and anxiety.
  • Be open about and explain stresses on the family (e.g., a parent out of work, an impending move, a sibling experiencing serious problems) to your child in simple terms, and reassure her that the adults in the family will take care of things.
  • Assess whether television or video game violence may be contributing to your child’s fears.
  • Try to avoid extremes (e.g., being too rigid, too permissive, or overprotective).
  • Be honest and objective about family problems that might make your child fearful. If the problems are too complex to address within the family (e.g., parental abuse of alcohol, abusive behavior, marital problems or parental illness [mental or physical]), seek counseling.
  • Be aware that the object or situation your child identifies as the cause of his or her fears may be a substitute for something she is hesitant to express (e.g., fear of “monsters” may really be fear of a person; fear of “the dark” may really be fear of the arguing she hears from another room). Consider whether there are “family secrets” your child may be afraid of or not allowed to discuss openly. Seek counseling if you find it too difficult to communicate with your child about her fears.
  • Suggest that your child write a story or draw a picture of scary things, and look for clues to help you understand his fears better. An older child might write a letter or keep a journal.
  • Preoccupation with death or dying as well as morbid subjects may be a sign of depression. If your child is overly concerned with these things, have him or her evaluated by a health professional.

Childhood ADD/ADHD – ADHD is not strictly speaking an emotional disorder, although it is often associated with emotional problems due to the stress it can cause for the child and the family. It is the most diagnosed psychiatric disorder in children today. As many parents have realized, ADD/ADHD is a condition that comes with a great deal of controversy regarding diagnosis and treatment.

It is thought that the condition is significantly over diagnosed and many times children are medicated with high schedule addictive drugs that can have far reaching effects on their future health and development. On the other hand, children who do suffer from ADD/ADHD definitely need help – as it affects all aspects of their functioning, development and relationships.

ADHD may be defined as a condition which generally starts in childhood where there is increased motor activity in association with poor attention span and concentration”. Children with ADD also struggle with concentration and attention span, but do not have hyperactivity or restlessness.

The many symptoms of childhood ADHD vary greatly, and that is why it is important to seek a thorough evaluation from a Clinical Psychologist and receive a professional diagnosis. ADHD does not have clear physical signs that can be seen in an x-ray or show up on a lab test. ADHD can only be identified by certain characteristic behaviors and these behaviors vary from child to child (a Clinical Psychologist will be able to properly assess a child that shows symptoms of ADHD).

Remember: Symptoms that appear to be ADHD (but are not) can be caused by a number of factors such as food intolerances, muscle weakness, hearing problems, boredom, certain medications and emotional factors – So a proper assessment before prescribing medication is the golden rule!

Diet guidelines regarding childhood ADHD

While some professionals dismiss this as nonsense, some spectacular behavioral changes in children have been observed once certain foods have been removed from their diets. Not all children respond, but there are definitely some children who do – and quite dramatically!

Things to avoid are soda pops and ‘fizzy’ cool drinks (especially cola drinks), anything with caffeine (again cola drinks, coffee, Ceylon tea and chocolate), food with high sugar content as well as anything containing tartrazine (an artificial food coloring), MSG or artificial preservatives. One must make allowances for the occasional treat and freedom to enjoy a birthday party for example, but educate your child and be firm about what he may and may not eat, especially on school days.

A brief summary regarding diet:

  • Avoid foods and drinks high in sugar during school days and limit over weekends.
  • Avoid foods and drinks containing stimulants like caffeine – found in coffee, tea, chocolate and coca cola, as well as in many energy drinks.
  • Avoid foods and drinks with artificial flavors and colors, especially tartrazine and MSG.
  • Try to keep junk foods down to a minimum.
  • See what happens if you eliminate wheat and refined carbohydrate from the diet for a few weeks. Many children have a wheat intolerance which can cause hyperactivity. Instead use oats, brown rice and rye bread.
  • Eat lots of fresh fruit, salads and veggies. Include fish in the diet as much as possible.
  • Take a supplement containing flaxseed oil or evening primrose oil.

Last but not least – Communication is KEY!

As many emotional problems in children should be treated immediately, it is very important that lines of communication in the family are kept open. Perhaps a few moments before bedtime can be set aside for any ‘issues’ that a child may want to discuss with a parent. A journal or “feelings book” is another good idea – if children are encouraged to write down their emotions, they may feel more inclined to share their feelings with family members.

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