Just like adults, children can have life issues that are hard to deal with. Problems that affect families may affect children in different ways than the adults in their lives. Even things that adults see as positive or as an opportunity may be stressful for children. Like adults, most children are resilient, and part of growing up is learning to deal with change and life events. But big bad things can happen and sometimes even routine issues can become problematic.
Sometimes children have responses that seem irrational based on the particular issue. Instead of reacting with apparent sadness to a sad event, they may become loud and physical at school or lash out at people who care for them. It is safe to assume that what would be logical responses from an adult may not be logical for a child and vice versa.
The following are some signals that a child might benefit from professional help:
Long periods of sadness
Sometimes a child is sad for weeks at a time and doesn’t seem to move past that. Children who are sad may act out physically, with tantrums, generally getting in trouble and breaking rules. They may cry frequently and over things that wouldn’t normally bother them. A child may not be able to verbally express their inner feelings. (Many adults have trouble with this too!)
Living in the past
If there has been a change that made the child unhappy, whether a loss from death, a move to a new school or community, a parental divorce or other event, a child normally will experience unhappiness for a time but then move on. When a child seems to consistently and constantly be focused on how things were before – even in the face of positive events in the present, this may be sign that help is needed.
When a child is withdrawn, they are unwilling to participate in activities or be with other people. This can happen at school, at home or with family. They don’t enjoy things they normally would enjoy, don’t want to play with friends or interact with others.
Problems saying goodbye to parents
They may become very attached to parents (more so than before) and exhibit anxiety about where the parent is, when are they coming back, etc. All this would be in contrast to more normal behavior for the child.
Children who can usually focus and get things done, may have a harder time and be more distracted. They may not be able to focus on instructions and some may even complain that they can’t concentrate.
Changes in daily habits
Sleeping, waking, eating and other normal routines no longer seem to apply. Adults may have trouble predicting what used to be normal behavior patterns.
Return to younger behavior
Children may regress to earlier behaviors such as thumb-sucking, wanting to be carried or have other things done for them. These are often behaviors that generated comfort or adult interaction.
Feeling a sense of responsibility or guilt
This is more likely a problem with older children. They assume that some action of theirs caused a death or divorce. They feel unrealistically responsible for taking care of siblings or even adults. They may feel caught in the middle of family conflicts and feel that they have to resolve them.
The child may seem angry all the time; getting into fights with other children or siblings. They may act out physically, hitting, shouting or biting. This may take place at home, school, childcare or other homes. Young but also older children may exhibit temper tantrums, opposing any request, kicking and screaming more often than before.
Feeling anxious and worried
Some children worry a great deal and become very anxious. It may be about parents when they are not at home. If a death occurred, they may worry that it will happen again or that whatever bad thing happen will happen again.
Parents or caregivers are unable to help
A whole family may be dealing with the issue and parents may be too involved with their own feelings or another family member’s to be able to support the child. They may be having trouble with their own feelings.
These behaviors may seem illogical for the situations described and adults may say “How can I possibly know what is going on?” Your best tool is to know your child and what they are like normally. Then you can notice that a quiet reserved child has become a bully, or a laughing outgoing child has stopped interacting and socializing. The difference between what is normal and what is going on now, plus how long the changed behavior has lasted can be a big clue that something is wrong. Behavior changes may not be immediately obvious. We tend to notice loud physical behaviors sooner than quiet reserved behaviors. Many parents or teachers will say that a period of time had passed and suddenly they realized that something was different about the child.
Capital EAP has many resources to help families. Often the first step to help a child is for a parent or loved one to talk to a counselor about what is happening. Many resources are available through the EAP. Don’t hesitate to call and ask for help!