Handling Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in Children
Your kiddo is bouncing off the walls, routinely throwing tantrums, or seems to not be listening to a word you say. You feel like nothing you say to them is being heard, and nothing you do is getting through to them. Well, you’re not alone! The Child Mind Institute explains as many as 10-15% of children in 2019 experienced some sort of emotional or behavioral disorder which may be responsible for this extreme behavior. Some of the most common and most studied examples include ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), anxiety, bipolar disorder, or autism. Many are not aware that these disorders can be present in children, however, it is now believed that these disorders appear in early childhood.
What Are These Disorders?
Have you ever been in a lecture or a business meeting where you are expected to pay attention for a long period of time, but you have something really exciting planned, so you don’t pay attention to a word from the event? This is what being inside the brain of a child with ADHD can feel like, except it is not one day, it is every day, all the time. These children are expected to sit still and focus on one task, while their minds are running constantly from task to task, which is why they are so hyper. Since children are not able to regulate their emotions as an adult may be able to, this inability to focus turns into anger at times, which leads to the episodes. These children do not mean to be disruptive, hyper, or impulsive, however, that is how their brain is wired to work and respond to their environment.
For many children with autism, some of the emotional outbursts may be from a lack of understanding, and the outbursts are a coping mechanism. Many times, they struggle to make emotional connections with others, so they lash out the way almost any child does with negative emotions; with anger or sadness. Since there is a spectrum for autism, sometimes it is not apparent when children are dealing with this right away, so it is difficult for the people around them to understand their behavior or use effective strategies, which is only fuel being added to the fire.
Often when children have bipolar disorder it is characterized by dramatic mood swings. Sometimes a child will be in the best mood one minute, and the next they are upset and throwing a full-blown tantrum. This disorder is fairly uncommon for children under twelve years old, and many times can be mistaken for ADHD in young children. This disorder may be difficult to understand and handle because sometimes the episodes can be very unpredictable and do not have triggers you can watch for like some of the other disorders do.
Anxiety in children many times can look like OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), or intense fear. If a child gets very worked up and frightened for no apparent reason without much warning, this may be a sign of anxiety. With OCD a child usually wants or insists on small, seemingly unimportant things being an exact way, and if that is messed with that child will be devastated. This may result in an episode of devastation or anger because children with OCD need control over certain aspects of their life to feel at ease.
What Are Some Effective Ways of Handling These Disorders?
One way to help children that struggle from any of the above disorders is to have a set routine. Routine is beneficial because it begins to set boundaries and gives the child a sense of security. When completing a task, instructions which are as clear as possible and very structured are helpful. It is typically encouraged to let children be independent and explore their creativity, however, when dealing with these types of behavioral and emotional factors, the structure is vital. Giving one instruction and expecting the child to use their best judgment for the rest of the task is overwhelming for a child with any of these issues the majority of the time, so they may just end up frustrated and not want to participate.
Communication, as well as paying attention to triggers are also keys when handling deeper issues than just mild distraction or frustration. Many believe they should not cater themselves to children, and that children will grow “spoiled” if they are treated this way. This may be true when dealing with a child without deeper issues who just happens to be frustrated. For example, if a child with OCD needs to hang up their own jacket every day when normally you would hang it up for efficiency, this may be a point to consider. This is a small adjustment to make on the adult’s part to avoid a tantrum that would otherwise happen every day, and if it is a continual battle it is probably much more important to the child than just a matter of being argumentative. If a child who is on the autism spectrum needs to have their room adjusted a certain way and not touched, even if it bothers you, this is most likely a minor inconvenience for you compared to the level of attachment the child holds for this idea. Routine and structure are very important to these children. This is not a suggestion to give into every single fit, however when dealing with these issues sometimes it is important for yourself and the child to pick your battles. When a child’s brain works a certain way, sometimes we have to adjust ourselves, our environment, or our routine a little bit to help them. It is important for us to remember that a child is a child, they are trying their best to cope with emotions they cannot control, so as adults it is our responsibility to make adjustments to help them where it is possible.
When talking with these children positive and negative reinforcement is essential. It is also very important to be conscious when using negative reinforcement. For example, if a child has ADHD and they are set in time-out for fifteen minutes and expected not to move a muscle, this method will likely end in disappointment from both sides because part of this disorder is hyperactivity and the need to be moving. If your child needs to spend some time in a time-out as punishment, you may need to understand they will be standing up, moving around, and wanting to touch or play with everything because they need to be stimulated, which is not them rebelling. Them listening and staying in a designated area is sufficient, because they are following a direction which is what you are working towards! Communicating with these children, and calmly tell them what they did wrong, working out a plan on what can be changed, as well as praising desirable behavior is an effective way to begin teaching which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.
When interacting with any child, it is always important to remember they are young and still developing. They will make mistakes, and sometimes need to be treated with a little bit of extra patience, while still being held accountable for naughty actions. Children with emotional or behavioral disorders may need even more patience since they are in the same boat as the other children, but they are also trying to develop and learn while dealing with a disorder which can cause more frequent negative behaviors.