One could argue that child therapy is similar to veterinary medicine in that the underlying problem is often a guessing game. Similar to pets, young and immature children do not have the verbal skills to share their internal experiences. It is not likely for a child to enter your counseling office or classroom with the insight of why they are there, what they are feeling, and what they need. Their self-awareness is limited, and their ability to articulate their needs is often obsolete.
Just as your dog may chew up the couch when you leave for work, or your cat may urinate outside of the litter box when a new kitten is brought home, children will show their distress through their behaviors.
It is easy to get distracted by attitudes, manipulation, lying, defiance, and stealing, as our immediate reaction is to discipline and teach respect. However, if we only focus on repairing the negative behaviors, we neglect to see that these behaviors may be signs something is seriously wrong.
When I receive calls from parents pleading for help because their child has “anger issues,” and is exhibiting “out of control behavior,” my automatic response is to assess for anxiety, social changes, trauma, and depression. It would only be a band-aid strategy if I just focused on teaching anger management skills without exploring what is causing the anger. Once the trigger to the behavior is identified, the real treatment can begin.
Behavioral Signs of Child Distress
Below are a few not-so-obvious, but still significant behavioral signs of distress. Use the bullet-pointed clues as excuses to assess for underlying issues, such as anxiety, depression, and social problems to further explore and remedy.
Anxiety Behavior Signs:
- Somatic complaints
- Avoiding responsibilities
- Controlling others
- Trouble staying asleep
Depression Behavior Signs:
- Drop in academic performance
- Talking less than normal
- Neglecting important or typically preferred activities
- Anger outbursts
- Sleeping too much
- Changes in eating habits, exercise, and hygiene
- Frequent complaints
Social Conflict/Rejection Behavior Signs:
- Abrupt changes in friends
- Targeting a peer for retaliation
- Excluding others
- Social isolation
- Obsessive negative talk about peer/s