When your child turns into a little monster
Seattle Times staff reporters
Most parents have a worry list as long as a freeway on-ramp line at rush hour. And usually somewhere on the list is a concern about their children's mental health.
The Seattle Times' health page on Wednesday presented a story on children's mental disorders: how to recognize symptoms, find good treatment and hook up with a support group. Today we look at the nine out of 10 kids who do not have a mental disorder — but do sometimes act in worrisome ways.
To help figure out why healthy kids can sometimes be moody or anxious or even explosive, we talked to Dr. Bill Womack, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington.
First, consider what's going on in the child's or teen's life, he suggests. Most often, he notes, kids' emotional, behavioral or mood problems are not a mental disorder, but a reaction to a transient event in their lives, usually:
• Personal or family crises, such as the death of a relative or friend, illness of a family member, not meeting personal goals, or divorce.
"Divorce is the hardest for kids to get used to because it's a breakup of the family's stability. It reinforces to children that they don't have much control," Womack says. "They can get very distressed about divorce, but in the long run they get through the crisis."
Two other common sources of trouble:
• Temperament and personality clashes: Sometimes parents have difficulty accepting their child's natural temperament. They may, for instance, want a child who is shy or anxious to be friendly and "say hello" or even kiss other children and adults. Or they may want a sensitive child to watch Bambi "without crying like a baby" when Bambi's mother dies. Or, and this is a big one, they may want their independent kids to be less "stubborn."
Conflicts like these can lead to frustration and hurt. A parent often feels as if "nothing I try works," while a child feels as if "I can't ever do anything right."
• Difficult stages: As kids pass through all the stages from infancy to the teenage years, they sometimes suffer developmental crises, and the crises sometimes seem to go on longer than necessary.
Kids going from toddlerhood to preschool, for example, typically hate sharing. Kids entering first grade frequently dislike the classroom's new limits on their freedom of movement. Kids moving into middle school struggle with everything from the loss of their childhood to the taunts of their peers, and sometimes experience physical symptoms such as headaches.
"Adolescence has its own challenges, which most people are familiar with," Womack says. "It really makes them anxious, frightened and more irritable with parents."
Seek out another opinion
So, when should a parent seek help? Womack says that a neutral person such as a relative, minister or primary-care provider can help parents better understand their children during personal, familial or developmental crises.
He also notes that conflicts over temperament and personality style can be more complicated. "This is the same arena as parents who argue and have lost the ability to see each other's perspective or how to be supportive," Womack says. "The same process can occur between parent and child."
If parents can't easily give up the notion, say, that their shy, retiring child should be outgoing, then the child could become depressed and require counseling, he says.
The best things parents can do to try to head off problems early:
• Heart-to-hearts: Start having heart-to-heart talks when your child is young. Don't wait until a crisis erupts or your child is suddenly a teenager. Parents who know and understand their kids can have a major influence in helping them through the rough spots.
• Listen to feelings: Let your child know that you're really interested in their feelings, and that there are many ways to solve a problem.