by Phyllis L. Neumann, MS, MFT

Now that school has begun, and it's still early in the year, this is a good time to look your child over to see how he or she is doing, and what problems may be showing up.

Generally speaking, a family is an integrated system. When one family member is under stress it is reflected in the lives of the others everyone in the family is touched in some way. If your family is having problems, such as friction or fighting between parents, financial worries, job insecurities, or problems that are alcohol- or drug-related, the children in the family will tend to reflect these problems through their behavior.

Unlike adults, who have had years of practice in appearing socially acceptable, a child's stress is more externally visible and symptoms are not as well camouflaged. Behavioral indicators on the outside reveal the underlying emotional stress on the inside. Some children may withdraw and hide, while others may act out behaviorally. Some children may even become exceptionally helpful and super-responsible, taking over much of the parent's role, such as caring for younger siblings, cleaning the house and other household chores.

Emotional problems in children are most often reflected in school performance and in social relationships. Children will tend to have a hard time focusing on their work in class. They may become bored, distracted, frustrated, disinterested, or even forgetful - or they may become behavior problems. On the playground they may get into frequent fights, pick on younger children or become victims of teasing or bullying themselves. They may choose friends that may not seem appropriate for them, and who may join them in antisocial behavior.

Signs of Emotional Stress

It's important to be alert for the signs of stress both at home and at school. In general, children under emotional stress tend to call attention to themselves in some way. They may exhibit behavior that is too loud or boisterous, too quiet, too disruptive or even "too good." These children are displaying signs of emotional stress, and their problems should be taken seriously and evaluated further.

Children under emotional stress may:

  • look angry or depressed much of the time, seldom smiling or laughing.
  • become behavioral problems, lashing out and being generally disobedient or defiant.
  • become inattentive, tending to "space" out and daydream a good part of the day.
  • appear lethargic and tired, and may sleep a lot more than is physically required.
  • get into frequent fights with siblings or other children. They may bully or hurt younger children or animals, or become the butt of ridicule or abuse themselves.
  • isolate themselves from other children, often preferring to play by themselves. They might lock themselves in their room for hours at a time, sleeping, reading or playing computer games.

Treatment for Children

Children under emotional stress need a place to deal with their feelings.

  • School counselors offer a good place to begin further evaluation. They will talk to the child and parents, find out the source of the problem, and help resolve the conflict or recommend alternatives.
  • Play therapy and sand play are forms of counseling in which the child is able to express his or her feelings through the use of toys, rather than verbally talking about his feelings the way adults do.
  • Family counseling looks at the entire family system. The whole family participates in the counseling session together. Everyone shares with each other how they are feeling and gets support for their feelings.

It is important to deal with the child's problem as soon as it is recognized. The younger you can get the child into treatment, the faster the results. As the child grows, he becomes more skilled and more sophisticated in hiding his feelings, and treatment often takes longer. Now is a good time to check out how your children are doing and, if necessary, to take action.

Published in the Half Moon Bay Review on September 12, 2007