THE PAST YEAR HAS BEEN A CHALLENGING ONE for children as well as adults. Isolation, uncertainty, fear, illness, loss of loved ones, and disrupted routines in the home, school, work, and church have all taken their toll. These stressors have an impact on physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being, especially with children.
Some families and children seem to have flourished from being at home, having a slower pace of life, spending time in nature, and growing spiritually closer as a family. And, for all kinds of reasons, others have struggled. Whether you are a concerned parent, grandparent, friend, neighbor, teacher, or pastor, you might be wondering about a child’s mental health, praying for them, and looking for ways to help.
Some children show their distress by being aggressive toward themselves, other children, adults, and objects. If you notice this happening, try to understand what might have triggered the behavior.
Ask what happened just before their outburst. Anger is a secondary emotion that can quickly follow on the heels of fear, sadness, feeling out of control, or being misunderstood. Help them identify their primary emotion, which may be easier for them to talk about and manage. You could say, “Sometimes when people throw things or hurt people, it’s because they are hurting inside. I wonder what your throwing/hitting hand would say if it could speak and tell us what it’s thinking and feeling?”
Before disciplining a child for being out of control, stop and consider any distress that might be fueling their misbehavior. Gently say something like, “Tommy, I know you don’t usually behave like this, and I’m wondering if something is bothering you or making you feel funny inside. Would you like to have a cuddle and we can talk about it together?”
Stay calm. The calmer you are, the easier it is to help your child calm down and feel safe. If you become angry or shout, they are likely to become more distressed, which will make it even harder for them to manage their behavior. Or they may lie to you or hide their behavior because they feel afraid.
Reassure them of your love, acceptance, and care before you try to correct them. Wait until an aggressive child has calmed down before touching them. Find other ways to connect. Gently say, “It sounds like you are really frustrated/upset/annoyed/hurt. I want you to know that I care about what you are feeling, and I’m going to stay with you until you feel better.” Wait for them to calm down
before trying to have a rational conversation about their behavior.
Help them to find a positive outlet for their energy—a safe place to burn off steam, an engaging hobby, a calming activity, a fun distraction, a kind thing to do for someone else, or a gratitude activity. If they have hurt another child, help them do something to repair the relationship. If they have made a mess, help them clean it up.
WATCH FOR SIGNS
Look out for the quieter children, too. It’s easier to miss changes in the behavior of children who are introverts, who are naturally less active, or who stay alone in their rooms.
Emotional distress is the most common cause of abdominal pain in children. So respond to tummy aches with loving care and attention, and always ask if anything is bothering them.
Some anxious and distressed children will act younger than their age, such as sucking their thumb, bed-wetting, or wanting a parent to feed them. This is often a response to feeling sad, insecure, or frightened and in need of reassurance and protection. They might unconsciously regress to an age when they received more comfort and support. Avoid shaming them for their behavior and making
them feel worse. Listen to them and be compassionate, comforting, and reassuring.
MAKE A COMFORT MENU
When children feel sad or depressed, they might cry more than usual, refuse to do simple tasks, be less energetic, or become agressive. They may have lost someone or something important to them. Take lots of time to listen to their sad stories and reassure them with your hugs and comfort. Ask how you can help them feel better.
Make a “comfort menu” together, listing things that help them feel better when they’re sad inside. Always include talking to you and having a big hug so they don’t have to feel sad alone. Encourage them to make a gratitude journal where they write or draw the things that they are thankful for each day. Being kind to others can also help them to feel happier. Sometimes when people are sad, something very simple becomes an almost impossible task. So if they are struggling to do something, gently come alongside and support them.
Establish simple everyday routines, with enough space for some flexibility. Slow down the pace of activity in the home, and be intentional about creating a warm, safe, and happy place for children to be. Set up a chill-out area or even just a basket or box of quieting activities—bubbles, calming storybooks, cuddly toys, etc. Read stories from the library about children managing their feelings in different ways. Go outside for refreshing walks in nature whenever you can. Plan family worships and prayer times around calm and reassuring themes of God’s love, forgiveness, and protective care.
If you’re all working and studying from home or life is particularly stressful, create some fun ways to release the tension. Invite everyone to stop what they’re doing once an hour and connect in a fun and creative way. Try calling out an alphabet of gratitude together or try a physical challenge such as patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. Play a quick group game. Sing a favorite action song together. Run around the house and find some things that are each color of the rainbow. Throw a soft ball to each other as you tell something that makes you feel happy.
Daily emotional check-ins can help you notice when a child is distressed. This can also help them find the language and opportunity to talk to you about their struggles. Check in by asking them about the happiest moment, saddest moment, most difficult/challenging moment, and most surprising moment of their day. Always take time to listen to their concerns, remembering that they may not always be able to express their thoughts and feelings clearly. Normalize their worries and experiences, when appropriate, because everyone is feeling a little topsy-turvy at the moment. Support them as they explore activities that might be helpful for them.
LOOK FOR MORE
Whenever you look at a child’s behavior, you are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. If they are happy, there is a whole load of happy beneath the surface, and if they are behaving in unexpected, aggressive, and distressing ways, there is probably a whole lot of sadness, fear, frustration, and worry inside them that needs to be soothed and untangled.
All children will feel sad, afraid, anxious, frustrated, or angry, and it’s quite normal for them to express their feelings through their behavior, especially if they are experiencing a complex feeling that they can’t name or describe. Notice when troubling behaviors become a regular pattern. Think about what was happening in their life when the behavior began, because that might help you understand their underlying emotions and distress. When do these behaviors happen, and how often? Are certain events more likely to trigger the behavior?
Talk to your family doctor about your concerns, and try to get help for the child as soon as possible so their distress can be relieved. Wherever possible, choose a therapy in which children are seen together with their parents and caregivers so that you can understand what is bothering your child and support them better.
Visit www.handsonscotland.co.uk for clear and simple advice to help your child through all kinds of troubling behaviors, as well as ideas and activities that can help them to flourish.