Sam, 10 years old, was suddenly refusing to go to school, refusing to eat dinner with his family, and fighting constantly with his sister, 8-year-old Abigail. Up until to now, Sam loved being at school, looked forward to his upcoming elementary school graduation, and sat at dinner, excitedly relating the highlights of his school day. Sam and Abigail had the typical sibling squabbles, but nothing to this extent.
Susan and Alex, Sam's parents were at their wit's end, not knowing what to do, how to help their usually bright and easygoing son. Susan asked her own therapist for a recommendation to a child and adolescent therapist. It is at this point that Sam came to me for ongoing therapy.
Sometimes kids, like adults, can benefit from therapy. Therapy can help kids develop problem-solving skills and also teach them the value of seeking help. Child therapists can help children and families cope with stress and a variety of emotional and behavioral issues.
As in the case of Sam, it is not clear what's caused a child to suddenly seem withdrawn, irritable, sulky, or worried. But if you feel your child might have an emotional or behavioral problem or needs help coping with a difficult life event, trust your instincts.
During the course of treatment, Sam and I played many games of Uno and chess, with Sam slowly opening up about his feelings of sadness and fear. He talked about his mixed feelings regarding leaving the "cozy nest" of elementary school and transitioning to the "scary and big" local middle school. He knew that most of his friends would be going to the same middle school, but worried that he would not know many of the other kids coming from other elementary schools. Additionally, he was worried that his sister Abigail would feel abandoned and lonely without Sam at the same school.
Signs that a child may benefit from seeing a therapist include:
- behavioral problems (such as excessive anger and acting out)
- a significant drop in grades, particularly if your child normally maintains high grades
- episodes of sadness, tearfulness, or depression
- social withdrawal or isolation
- being the victim of bullying or bullying other children
- decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities
- overly aggressive behavior, such as biting, kicking, or hitting
- sudden changes in appetite, eating much less or much more than usual
- insomnia or increased sleepiness
- excessive school absenteeism or tardiness
- mood swings, e.g. happy one minute, upset the next
- development of or an increase in physical complaints, such as headache, stomachache, or not feeling well, despite a normal physical exam by your child's pediatrician
- problems in transition, following separation, divorce, relocation, or new school
While your child copes with emotional issues, be there to listen and care, and offer support without judgment. Patience is critical, too, as many young children are unable to verbalize their fears and emotions.
Other ways to communicate openly and problem solve include:
- Talk openly and as frequently with your child as you can
- Show love and affection to your child, especially during troubled times
- Set a good example by taking care of your own physical and emotional needs
- Enlist the support of immediate family members, your child's doctor, and teachers
- Improve communication at home by having family meetings that end with a fun activity, e.g. playing a game, making ice cream sundaes
- No matter how hard it is, set limits on inappropriate or problematic behaviors. Ask the therapist for some strategies to encourage your child's cooperation
- Communicate frequently with your child's therapist
- Be open to all types of feedback from your child and from the therapist
- Respect the relationship between your child and the therapist. If you feel threatened by it, discuss this with the therapist (it's nothing to be embarassed about)
- Enjoy favorite activities or hobbies with your child
By recognizing problems and seeking help early on, you can help your child—and your entire family—move through the tough times toward happier, healthier times ahead.
Sam and I continue to work together individually, meeting once a week. I have had sessions with just his parents, with Sam and Abigail, and the entire family. Sam is feeling better now, is going to school everyday and having fewer arguments with Abigail. Sam is looking forward to going to sleep-away camp this summer, and starting middle school in September. Sam and I agree that he will join my middle school boys group when school starts. His parents are happy and relieved that Sam is once again his happy and easygoing self.