Emotional upset-whether anger, sadness, or fear-is a normal response to different stresses in a child's life. Children may not be able to express in words exactly what it is they are feeling. Instead, they may show their feelings by acting out in anger, by withdrawing, or by displaying physical symptoms such as vague abdominal pain, fatigue, or headache. Physical signs of stress can also include dizzy spells; a racing pulse; sweaty palms, feet, or face, not associated with physical activity; chronic headaches; trembling; hives; and insomnia.
The behavior or response you see may not seem to match or articulate the underlying feeling, but it is usually the best way available to the child to express himself in that situation. When a child says, "I hurt," a parent should, of course, explore the physical symptoms, but also be sure to take time to explore whether the pain is actually an emotional hurt. Instead of focusing only on the anger or physical symptom your child displays, look for the deeper emotional need that may be giving rise to it. Help your child verbalize his feelings to ask for what he is really wanting or needing. For example, by saying, "It seems that there is something that you want or need right now. Do you know what that is?" or, "What are you hurting about?" you may be able to get beyond the immediate behavior or illness to a deeper concern or need. It also helps the child know that you are available and that you care about him. Be willing to be patient, listen, and help your child express what he is feeling. Sometimes all a child needs is to feel heard and to be acknowledged. Instead of quickly "kissing and making it all better," sit with your child, hold him, and acknowledge his hurt. Tell him, "I see that you are hurting," or, "I hear that you are needing more of my time," or, "You're right, it is so sad that that happened." Acknowledging your child's feelings, and helping him to articulate those feelings, may be one of the greatest gifts you can offer as a parent. It helps to build a child's self-esteem.
Children thrive in an environment that feels safe and secure, and in which they
receive plenty of love, support, and guidance. Any major change, instability,
or ongoing conflict will have an impact. Don't assume that a child doesn't know about family stresses unless you tell him. In fact, it is more realistic to assume that a child does know about whatever stresses there are in the family, and needs support to deal with what he is feeling. Children are like very sensitive weathervanes. They have a natural ability to pick up on feelings, conflicts, or changes in their environments. Using language your child can understand, talk about changes or conflicts in the family. Help your child to understand what is really happening so that he does not need to guess or imagine. The explanations children come up with on their own are often more frightening than the reality.
If, after you have identified a problem and addressed it in the most
compassionate and complete way you know, your child's emotional upset or
behavior seems unchanged or even worse, or if it is disrupting the family or
his ability to function at school, it is time to seek further help. In the
event of certain traumatic situations, such as a divorce or a death in the
family, it is beneficial to seek counseling for your child regardless of how he seems to be handling the problem. Group or individual counseling can help your child learn to understand and express his feelings appropriately.
More long-term and complicated emotional and behavioral disorders, such as violence and aggression, drug abuse, depression, developmental disabilities, ant learning disabilities, are beyond the scope of this book. Signs of a more serious problem include violent or aggressive behavior; withdrawal from the family; a drastic change in usual behavior; an unwillingness to talk; changes in eating habits; an inability to sleep or sleeping much more than usual; deteriorating school performance; continuous conflict with parents, teaches, or pees; difficulty making friends; and chronic tearfulness or apathy. If you suspect a serious or chronic emotional or behavioral problem, consult your child's teacher, school guidance counselor, or physician. Your child and/or your family may need professional help.
Children need emotional support and guidance throughout their lives as the challenges and tasks they face continue to expand and change. Part of your responsibility as a parent is to stay current and aware of your child's needs so that you can support his emotional health.
Sources of Stress in Your Child's Life
Adults are often inclined to think of childhood as a happy time, free of stresses and concerns. Children's problems may seem minor-perhaps even "cute"-in comparison with their own. Parents should always remember, however, that as far as a child is concerned, the problems of childhood are serious indeed, and that they pose real challenges to a child's emotional resources.
Below is a list of some of the possible sources of stress that may cause emotional upset and resulting behavioral changes in your child. Realizing that these situations can create upset for your child gives you the opportunity to support your child throughout the situation-in preparation for, during, and after the transition or difficulty.
- Death of a close family member.
- Death of a friend.
- Death of a pet.
- Parental fighting.
- Divorce of parents.
- Moving, even if only to a new neighborhood in the same town.
- Best friend moving away.
- Changing schools.
- Pregnancy of mother.
- Birth of a new sibling.
- Parent with a new girlfriend or boyfriend.
- Remarriage of a parent.
- Parent losing a job.
- Financial troubles in the family
- Illness of a close friend or family member
- Bullies at school.
- First day of school
- Going away to camp.
- Beginning a new grade.
- Spending the night away from home, especially for the first time
- Fight with a friend
- Peer pressures, particularly in adolescence with drugs, smoking, drinking, sexuality.
- Threat of war, including the threat of nuclear war.
A family physician, pediatrician, or pediatric nurse practitioner is a good resource for helping parents understand developmental stages and healthy emotional responses. These professionals can provide important information and guidance for facing the challenges that might be coming up in a child's life and helping you to support your child through these transitions. They can also help you sort out the difference between a normal response and behavior that may signal an emotional problem needing further exploration and intervention. A doctor or nurse practitioner can refer the family to a counselor, a learning specialist, or appropriate community resources. Many naturopathic physicians are also extensively trained in counseling.
Limit your child's consumption of foods containing refined sugars and caffeine, both of which can cause mood swings.
Food allergies and sensitivities can cause or
contribute to mental and emotional difficulties such as anxiety, depression,
hyperactivity, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Use an elimination
diet or a food diary to track down food allergies and sensitivities
(see Elimination Diet).
Dealing With Temper Tantrums
Alexis Augustine, child therapist and author, offers the following information and advice regarding children's temper tantrums.
A temper tantrum is an outburst or violent demonstration of anger or frustration. Temper tantrums get our attention. The behavior of a child during a temper tantrum can range from crying and sobbing to screaming, shrieking, and throwing himself on the ground. Tantrums can happen in the middle of the grocery store, when you have company over, or when you really need that quiet moment to yourself. The most important thing to understand about temper tantrums is that they happen for different reasons and need to be dealt with in different ways.
There are three basic categories of temper tantrums.
When dealing with a child's temper tantrum, keep the following points in mind.
- Some tantrums occur because small children are unable to contain strong emotions, such as disappointment, frustration, or anger. They are still learning how to cope with their feelings. This type of tantrum can occur when a child gets overtired or overstimulated; children are more vulnerable at these times. Having a tantrum then is a way for a child to discharge the tension that has built up in his body. A child who is having this type of tantrum is not using his behavior to manipulate you; he simply cannot contain the strength of his emotions. If this is the case, it is important to maintain contact with the child at this time and help him feel safe. He is out of control, and that can feel scary. Also, children need to learn that they are loved even though their behavior is not always "nice." An effective way to support a child who is having this kind of tantrum is to hold him or sit with him while he is going through it.
- Another type of tantrum may occur if a child is not allowed to show anger or feelings that occur naturally. Children do not have the control over their emotions that adults have. They naturally have strong feelings, and for the sake of their emotional health they must be allowed to express these feelings and learn from them. When a child is not allowed to say that he is angry, an outburst of bottled-up feelings can be the result.
- Finally, a child may have a tantrum to try to exert control over a situation or another person, whether that means getting his way about which game to play or postponing his bedtime. Children are in the process of learning about getting their needs met. They need guidance in learning the best, most direct, and most appropriate ways to do this. If having a tantrum seems to work, a child may conclude that it is a viable way to get what he wants. If a child is having this type of tantrum, it is a good idea to acknowledge the child's feelings, but not to acquiesce to his demands. For example, if a child has a tantrum when his friends want to play a different game than he does, you might tell the child you understand that he wants to play something else, but then have him move to a safe place to have his tantrum. When he's finished, have him come back to join in playing. This way, he will realize that having a tantrum is a waste of time; he isn't getting what he wants, and besides, everyone else is having fun without him. A child having this type of tantrum is testing the limits on his behavior. A firm but matter-of-fact response is an effective way to deal with it.
- Children need help in learning effective coping strategies.
- Children need to learn a variety of ways of coping, so that they don't have to rely on just one. If they know only one coping mechanism, and that one doesn't fit the situation they're in, they won't know what to do.
- Shaming or embarrassing children for their behavior undermines their confidence.
- Talking with children about their behavior is more effective once everyone has calmed down.
- Self-regulation is age related. Children get better at it as they get older. It helps to have patience.
For age-appropriate dosages of nutritional supplements, see Dosage Guidelines for Herbs and Nutritional Supplements.