By Laura Walker
Identifying when your child is having a hard time emotionally can be tricky. It is important to remember the way a child and an adult reacts to stress, sadness, frustration and anxiety will often look very different. Noticing changes in your child’s behavior or demeanor and being aware of what is happening in their lives is critical, particularly for younger children.
If a child complains of consistent headaches or stomach aches and there is no obvious cause for these physical symptoms, evaluate what is happening in the child’s life. Is there stress at home over finances or someone’s health? Has there been a recent death or separation from a close friend or loved one? Have they started a new school or had problems interacting with peers? Evaluate major changes in your life and theirs. Rather than seeming overly sad or nervous, the effects of anxiety and depression in your child can be exhibited through physical symptoms. A child may also be uncharacteristically clingy, tearful, moody or aggressive, especially in young children who have not established coping skills.
If you have sought help from your pediatrician and ruled out any physical cause for recurring symptoms, you don’t want to assume the situation will resolve on its own. Untreated emotional and behavioral issues can become harder to treat and progress to impact physical health. Licensed therapists and psychiatrists who specialize in working with children and adolescents are trained in ways to help identify behavioral issues. Therapeutic techniques help them collect information from the child, even those who don’t have very developed communication skills. Often times the way a child speaks, plays, creates and reacts to situations helps clinicians understand what the child is feeling.
“One of our biggest struggles is having people recognize that undesirable behaviors are often symptoms of actual, treatable behavioral health conditions and not just simply bad behavior,” said John D. Damon, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer for Canopy Children’s Solutions. “If in behavioral healthcare we solely focus on the behavior and not the underlying causes, the child is not going to get better. You have to look deeper. What can make it additionally difficult is when a child’s reaction manifests itself in a physical way in addition to changes in behavior. It is important to look at the whole picture.”
Damon also discusses how in the healthcare field mental healthcare and physical healthcare are often put into separate “silos” as if they are unconnected. In reality, mind and body should not be thought of as separate distinctions as both are equally important components to achieving overall wellness. Poor physical health can lead to an increased risk of developing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Similarly, poor mental health can negatively impact physical health such as increased rates of stroke and heart disease. Treating a child for behavioral health issues should be a cooperative effort between your primary care physician and behavioral health provider.