"Children and parents can have bad days, but if noticeable changes in mood are happening often, there could be an underlying mental health issue." - Lori Cull-Deshmukh
Understanding a child’s behavior can be difficult sometimes. All children have trouble from time to time with emotions, but unlike adults, children are not as good at regulating their emotions. How do you determine when challenging behavior is typical or something more? Let’s start by asking yourself the questions below.
Are my child’s problems getting in the way of his or her day-to-day functioning? A tantrum or procrastination getting ready in the morning, avoiding chores or homework and/or getting to bed on time can be typical. However, if this behavior happens daily, or multiple days a week, for many weeks without successful redirection, this is worth looking into with the help of a professional.
Does my child get enough sleep, exercise and nutrition? Adequate sleep, exercise and nutrition are essential for healthy kids. If you feel your child is lacking in any of these areas, set some goals to make sure these needs are met.
Can my child stay focused when they need to? Sure, children get distracted. But if not being able to focus is preventing them from getting their homework done each week, it may indicate a mental health problem.
Does my child change moods for no apparent reason? Children and parents can have bad days, but if noticeable changes in mood are happening often, there could be an underlying mental health issue.
Is my child flexible with changes to their routine or new situations? All parents hear “I don’t want to” at some point. But if it feels like a struggle whenever something unexpected happens, it’s worth looking into further.
Did something scary or violent happen to my child? When children experience an event that is extremely upsetting or violent, they can develop symptoms and behaviors that may need specialized treatment.
Parents and caregivers are in the best position to observe and consider their children’s behavior. Communicating what you know and asking questions of yourself and mental health professionals can support children in overcoming barriers to mental health. The earlier you raise concerns, the easier it is to reduce symptoms and improve your child’s well-being. Just like your child’s physical health, there is a certain time when you may need to get a professional’s help.
You are your child’s first teacher and during the early years teaching occurs through play. Playtime interactions with parents give children opportunities to problem solve, process and manage difficult emotions, learn social skills like sharing and taking turns, and practice decision making. These are skills children learn best by practice and repetition in the presence of warm and engaged caregivers.
Play also offers parents the opportunity to fully engage with their child and build their relationship. A strong parent-child bond gives children the foundation on which to build healthy relationships with others including their siblings, friends, teachers and eventually other adults. Through playing with parents children learn to explore, laugh and express themselves. They learn the rules of what’s acceptable and what’s not. They learn how to function in their family and in their world.
Today’s families are busier than ever and often feel stressed and hurried. Meaningful connection can take place between parent and child in as little as five minutes of playtime together. Often when children are not feeling connected with their parent they begin to display attention-seeking behaviors in order to regain their parent’s attention. These behaviors could be tantrums, throwing or breaking a toy or hitting a sibling. A few minutes of play time with a child can be a way to “hit the reset button” by allowing a parent and child to connect in a positive way. This is often all it takes to shift a child’s behavior towards more positive interactions. Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) focuses on using this play time intentionally to promote skill development, enhance relationships and reduce problematic behaviors. This is accomplished by the therapist live coaching the parent-child dyad while playing and using the PCIT skills.
PCIT requires that parents complete Special Play Time daily at home. Kids and parents both begin to count on this daily time of connection and fun. And this has lifelong benefits for both.
Julie Gettings, LSCSW
Resolve Counseling & Wellness
Prairie Village, KS
I grew up in a small town of about 6-800 people on any given day. I don’t say an exact number because people were always coming and going and getting new farm animals, and of course the population reflects everyone’s livestock. (That’s a joke). I wasn’t a special child. I did things that normal children did. I played outside with my brothers, pretended my living room was a tiger battlefield or a baseball field and let my imagination take me wherever it wanted. I didn’t have the best gadgets or the most expensive toys, and I believe this led to a profound ability to be able to use my imagination.
Today, more and more kids are being deprived of that imagination. They don’t get to create worlds inside their mind and play it out with their bodies. They don’t believe in magic. They don’t create or use their creativity as much as we once saw before iPads and tablets. In fact, they are using these devices significantly more than many adults do. Children will not remember the time they spent on their iPad playing games when they are older. They will remember the relationships, the experiences, the memories, and how people in their lives took the time to listen to them, to communicate with them the way they know how. They will remember the person who helped them when they were hurt, comforted them when they cried, laughed until their tummies hurt over a silly game, and seeing new things for the first time. People build relationships. Technology builds distance. Read the impacts of technology on children here.
Children need to be able to play. They need to explore. They need to learn how to do things themselves. Play helps them figure things out on their own instead of having someone else do it just because the adult can get it done faster and more efficient. The more they can problem-solve on their own, the more self-confident they can become.
When I tell people I’m a play therapist, I often get one of two looks: confusion and an “uh-huh that’s cute but what can that do for my child” look. Play therapy is still a fairly uncommon type of therapy that many people and parents don’t know about. Play therapy is a type of language. It’s the language children use to communicate. Often times, as adults, we tend to think that children have the capacity to communicate just as we do --through words. However, many times, children cannot identify how they are feeling or communicate their experiences because they don’t have the brain development and vocabulary to do so.
Play is the language. Toys are the words. Children communicate their experiences through toys, through art, and through the process of play. Often, it’s not about what the child is playing with, but the process, the feelings that come out, the dialogue used, and whether the child engages the therapist in the play. Sometimes, the therapist will have activities of what to do with the child, and other times the therapist will allow the child to use the toys to experience whatever they need to in that moment.
Children play in themes in order to solve conflicts or re-enact problems at home, at school or within relationships. The play therapist narrates the play, adding feeling words and helping them process through the conflict on their own. Children who have experienced trauma, however, may have a more difficult time connecting with the toys and with the therapist. With them, it’s often about the relationship with the therapist first, and while we would all like it to be a quick fix, this process could take months until the child feels completely safe.
Plato said that one can learn more about another in an hour of play, than in a year of conversation. Play allows children, teens and even adults, process their emotions and traumas in a subconscious way--a way where they don’t have to speak, don’t have to talk, don’t have to be judged. They can just be themselves. They can just play.
Robin Helget, LMSW, CPT
Resolve - Counseling and Wellness
Prairie Village, KS