If you are a parent, chances are that your child’s well-being is vitally important to you. Parents want their children to be successful mentally, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally. It can be alarming for most parents when they see their child’s success in one or more of these areas start to fluctuate. Just like adults, it is normal and expected for children and teens to experience highs and lows in their lives.
Sometimes, children will be great at making and keeping friends; Other times, they struggle socially. Some moments, children will be fantastic at following instructions; Other times, they are more defiant. Similarly, there are times that children will go to their parents to talk about events and emotions going on in their worlds; Then there will be moments where they are more reserved and resistant to sharing their inner worlds.
So how do you know if the fluctuations you see in your child’s emotions and behaviors are signs of typical development or signs that they should go talk to a therapist?
First, let’s establish a baseline expectation through exploring what is expected in a child’s emotional development.
What to Expect from Your Child’s Emotional Development
Children are born with the natural ability to feel and respond to their bodies’ reactions to the world. These natural reactions are what we know as “emotions.” Emotions tell our brains important information that we need to know for survival. They tell us if something is good, if something is bad, if we are missing something that we need, and they tell us what we need. The same way that babies instinctively know how to recognize signs of hunger and fatigue, they also innately know how to recognize and respond to signs of happiness, sadness, fear, and other emotions. The only problem is that they don’t have the language necessary to be able to label and regulate these emotions on their own.
This is where parents and caregivers are needed to help. After all, research shows that naming an emotion is one of the best ways to start to regulate it. So, when two-year-old Liam starts to scream because he is angry, he needs to hear an adult say, “You must be feeling so angry right now about having to eat your peas!” in order to understand the emotion that is filling up his tiny body that leads to a loud scream.
However, this job of emotional regulation gets more complicated as kids grow up – for both parents and children. To show this transition, let’s continue to use Liam as an example.
By age two, children start to become interested in having peers around, but haven’t quite mastered playing and sharing with others. They tend to show their emotions in unfiltered reactions – like temper tantrums. At this age, Liam will scream or pout if he doesn’t want to eat peas.
Between the ages of three and four, children have an easier time playing with other kids. They also take on a wider range of emotion. They will probably be able to label how they feel as being “good” or “bad,” but they still need lots of help learning how to identify their emotions. Temper tantrums are still a normal experience for children in this age range. At this point in time, when Liam starts to scream about the peas on his plate, his parents might be able to get him to say, “I don’t like that I have to eat peas” through the tears and pouts.
When they start school, kids start to feel more social emotions (like embarrassment) that they need help understanding.
They will probably try to express feelings with words, but it is still difficult. Parents will still see automatic reactions in their kid’s behavior when he or she is upset – like throwing, stomping, and yelling. In this time period, Liam will be less likely to throw a temper tantrum, but he might cross his arms, pout his lip, and express dissatisfaction about seeing peas on his plate. He might say, “I’m angry. I don’t want to eat peas.”
By the time children get to be 9 or 10, they start to develop their own identities by being more withdrawn from family activities and conversations. This type of behavior can appear to be selfish or rude, but it is still necessary for parents to help children in this age range be able to feel validated and understood in what they are feeling while also distinguishing more beneficial ways to react to those valid emotions. When Liam is this age, he might express his disgust with peas by arguing with his parents to try to convince them that he shouldn’t have to eat peas.
As children enter into middle school, they start to value their peers’ and society’s opinions more than their caregivers’ opinions. Mood swings become more common around the time that puberty starts. However, older children and teens should have a better grasp on emotional vocabulary and recognition. Between the ages of 11 and 18, Liam might groan, but he can tell his parents, “I don’t want peas tonight. Can I have salad instead?”
Even with the simplified example of a child not wanting to eat vegetables, there is a shift in the way that a child responds to his or her own emotions.
However, the child’s ability to make this shift is entirely dependent on the way that their parents, other adults, and peers respond to that child’s emotions. When Liam gets encouraging, safe responses to his emotions, he learns that there is a benefit to paying attention to and communicating his emotions in ways that help him regulate his emotions as he gets older. However, when Liam gets responses to his emotions that leave him feeling embarrassed, dismissed, or unsafe to keep sharing, he will learn to pay less attention to his emotions or he will learn to regulate his emotions in ways other than communicating them verbally.
When Do My Child’s Emotions and Behaviors Indicate That They Need Child Therapy?
Once parents have a baseline for emotional and behavioral expectations, they can better monitor their child’s reactions in comparison with what is usual for developmental stages. However, a parent’s radar should not be underestimated. Parents seem to have a gut instinct about their children that is important to pay attention to.
In addition, sometimes kids try to tell their parents that they are in need of help emotionally by talking about physical symptoms. If your child or teen is complaining of frequent headaches or stomachaches after ruling out medical issues, a therapist is a good next step to take.
One of the best ways to decide if your child could benefit from child therapy is to ask your child (depending on their age).
For most parents, if you ask your child or teen if they would like to talk to a therapist, they will be able to tell you yes, no, or express their questions/hesitations. In general, children benefit from therapy as long as they have language to start articulating their perception of the world (usually around ages 2 or 3).
In general, you might consider whether or not your child would benefit from therapy if they:
- Seem to be acting out or being destructive
- Change their eating or sleeping habits
- Start withdrawing from activities or people that usually bring them happiness
- Are going through a major life transition, like changes in family structure
- Start talking negatively about themselves, talking about dying, and/or starts hurting themselves
- Are struggling in multiple areas of life, like school, relationships, friendships, etc.
- Have gone through a trauma, like a major physical or emotional injury
Does My Child Need Individual, Group, or Family Therapy?
If you decide that your child would benefit from starting therapy, the format of therapy is an important decision. Just like adults starting therapy, the format of therapy and the therapist are important factors in the success of therapeutic goals.
In general, your child and/or a therapist are probably the best resources to make this decision. Does your child feel more comfortable speaking alone? With peers going through similar experiences? Or does your child need help communicating and connecting with members of the family?
However, here are some guidelines for child therapy to consider:
- For children who experienced trauma and/or are showing signs of self-harm, individual therapy might be the best place to start.
- For children who struggle with social settings, are having trouble relating to peers or feeling “normal,” group therapy could be the thing for them.
- For children who are exhibiting behavior changes, acting out, withdrawing, and/or going through big transitions, seeing a family therapist to help you and your child communicate more effectively through these events might be the best option!
Don’t be afraid to reach out to a therapist to ask questions and seek advice on which direction to take. As a parent, it makes sense how much it matters to you to make sure your child is doing well. Taking the time to talk to your child and reach out for help might be the best thing you could do!