As parents, we pride ourselves on knowing all about our children. Their likes and dislikes, their friends, their strengths and weaknesses, and their interests. One thing we want to make sure of is that we are also keeping an eye on our children’s emotional and mental health, which is why you need to know these 5 signs your child is struggling emotionally.
5 Signs Your Child Is Struggling Emotionally
After 2+ years of a global pandemic, it feels like a long time for parents and children. But what represents 1% or less of our parent lifetimes, has been 20% of a ten-year-old child’s lifetime. If your child is 6 years old or younger, they may not even remember the “before times” of Covid-19, lockdowns, and school closures.
Our children (and even us parents) are down right out of practice with many of the basic skills we all used to take for granted. Things like, social interactions, navigating through crowds, routine changes, and overcoming daily challenges just haven’t been practiced much, by any of us, not only children, in the last few years. But for our children, this lack of practice has come at a time of social and emotional development, and as they are thrown back into a “full speed” world now, it may be a harder transition for children than any of us have anticipated.
Luckily, there are things parents can look for in children- behavior clues- that will act as signs your child is struggling emotionally, and give parents the opportunity to help children earlier, even before the child may be aware of a problem themselves or be able to verbalize it to parents.
So, what are 5 ways to tell your child is struggling emotionally?
Low Mood or Apathy
Parents know their children better than anyone else, and as a parent, you know what gets your child interested and excited. If you start to notice that your child isn’t enjoying the things they used to or are apathetic about adventures that used to get them excited, it may be one of the 5 signs your child is struggling emotionally. Sure, interests change over time, but if your child has been a gymnast for years, and suddenly can’t be bothered to change for practice, or your child has a love of dinosaurs, but would rather stay home than visit the museum, it could be a clue that something is up. Often when we think about depression, we think of sadness- crying and not being able to get out of bed. In reality, depression can manifest in different ways, and an early sign can be a lack of interest in activities one used to enjoy.
Quick to Anger
Everyone gets angry, and we know that young children have less emotional control and regulation skills than older children and parents, but again, you know your child best! If you feel like you’re walking on eggshells with your child all the time, trying not to say or do the wrong thing because they just seem so quick to anger lately, it could be one of the 5 signs your child is struggling emotionally. Maybe the things that used to be par for the course, like asking your child to finish their chores or start their homework, are now suddenly throwing them into a terribly grumpy mood. Or maybe you see your child getting angry over challenges they used to enjoy, like playing a video game and instead of persisting on a difficult challenge, they’re throwing the controller and getting upset. These are the quick-to-anger moments that can be one of the 5 signs your child is struggling emotionally.
End-of-Day Restraint Collapse
Also called After School Restraint Collapse, this happens when a child has been holding in their big emotions all day long in order to behave in an appropriate way, and then when they get to the safety of their home and comfort of their parent, they let it all out. Often this comes out as a “meltdown” or what some might call a “tantrum”. On the bright side, parents can take comfort when this happens in knowing that your child feels safe and loved with you, able to let their defences down and unload all their big feelings knowing that your love and support are a constant. You’ve created a connected and emotionally supportive parent-child relationship- great job! But that aside, it sure doesn’t feel good as a parent to see your child completely lose control like that. If this is happening to your child often, particularly at the end of events, such as a day of school, or any other big day of stimulation, it could be this third of the 5 signs your child is struggling emotionally. If your child is feeling like they can’t let their big feelings out in whatever situation they just came from, it may be time to assess that situation and make sure it’s serving your child as you want it to.
What are always-never statements? Always-Never statements are one of the “unhelpful thoughts” taught in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy- which by the way, is considered the “gold standard” in therapy to treat stress, anxiety, and depression. It is recognized and endorsed by organizations around the world, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the National Institute of Mental Health, and national psychiatric and psychological associations in Canada, the US, Australia, and the UK.
Likewise, hundreds of well-designed research studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of CBT for thousands of children. CBT teaches strategies to recognize and combat negative thought patterns, understand how they relate to and affect emotions and behaviour, and help children and parents to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and other negative self-talk and self-image. One of these negative thought patterns is Always-Never thinking. This is when your child sees a pattern that isn’t really there and jumps to the conclusion that something “always” or “never” happens when in reality it’s a little of both.
This is a common negative thought pattern with children, and we hear it in phrases like, “You never let me stay up late.” or “You always take my sister’s side!” This is evidence that your child is forging neuropathways in negative thought patterns that can be difficult to break later. If you hear these statements often, it could definitely be one of the 5 signs your child is struggling emotionally.
You’ve probably heard the term Growth Mindset; well, a Fixed Mindset is the opposite. When a child has a growth mindset, they believe that they have the capacity to learn as much as they want and that their mind can grow and strengthen by doing difficult things. A growth mindset also means that your child understands that mistakes are normal and important in the learning process. Growth Mindset also focuses children to the power of the word “yet”. Meaning there may be things your child can’t do… yet. When children have a growth mindset, they know that it’s just a matter of time and practice, and yes, failure and mistakes, before they learn the hard thing they were trying to learn. Evidence of a Fixed Mindset often comes in the form of words and phrases when your child is working on something hard or trying to overcome an obstacle. If you often hear your child saying things like, “I can’t.” or “I don’t know how.” or your child is quick to give up, then they may not have a very strong understanding of the Growth Mindset. The defeatist attitude of a Fixed Mindset can be one of the 5 signs your child is struggling emotionally and possibly having some self-esteem issues as well.
What do you do?
Now that you know these 5 signs your child is struggling emotionally, what do you do about it when you notice them?
The number one thing to do is be patient.
Remember that a lot of the things we, as parents, are excited to get back to like full-time in-person school, theme parks, concerts, and other big events- are but mere memories, at best, for our young children. These things can be very overwhelming, and some social anxiety from your child during the adjustment period is not uncommon. Be patient with them, take your time re-introducing these activities, keep them short and space them out as much as you can at first.
Second, don’t overburden your child’s schedule.
It’s exciting to be able to get back to the things we used to love. But a full day of school followed by sports, clubs, tutors, music lessons, etc. can do more harm than good, especially if your child is exhibiting any of these 5 signs your child is struggling emotionally. Too much hustle and bustle can leave children feeling overwhelmed and holding in their emotions too tightly for too long. Try to give your child lots of breaks, and plan for quiet downtime at home regularly.
And third, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you think your child is struggling.
From your family doctor to a myriad of private therapists, classes, courses, and at-home workbooks, there is a lot of valuable help out there for children and adults alike who are struggling emotionally. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help when you need it and remember that it’s always better to have done more than you needed to help your child than to not have done enough.
We’ve all been through a lot over the past 2 years, and a global pandemic is not a small or meaningless event in anyone’s life. If you or your child are struggling, don’t be embarrassed to ask for the help you need, decline events that don’t bring you joy, or adjust your schedule as much as you may need.
If you’re seeing some of the 5 signs your child is struggling emotionally, you may want to consider looking for an at-home, learn-together approach to helping your child learn to manage their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Check out the Schoolio Social-Emotional Learning unit, Thoughts & Feelings. This 10-lesson unit comes with scripted tools and fun activities that allow you and your child to learn the basics of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Social-Emotional Learning together. You do not have to be a parent-expert to do this unit with your child! You’ll learn and grow together, and you’ll be equipping your child with some concrete strategies they can use their whole lives whenever they are struggling emotionally.