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Emotional hijacking of our Behaviors

Children’s mental health matters. During this time you may be seeing changes in behaviors and attitudes that are “not your child,” You may be wondering what happened and what to do? Children experience life with their whole body as they learn to integrate their life experiences into learning and memories. As we have now settled into a semi routine during this pandemic, children and adults are still experiencing daily high stressors and small traumas. This over time impacts both parent and child mental health functioning. It is important to know what mental health looks like in children because it is portrayed behaviorally, not verbally like adults would. The behaviors that arise may be not only concerning to you, they may also elicit anger and worry from you, which escalates your reactivity towards your child. Your desire to want to control is high, resulting in a cycle of screaming, crying, meltdown, timeouts, and blowups for everyone involved.

Grown ups--it is our responsibility to role model stress management and this includes attuning to your own mental health as well. Children use their mirror neurons to establish neuronal links in their brains which create the functional patterns of how to respond to situations based on what they have learned. This means that children’s brains are copying their parent’s brains to learn how to regulate and cope with stress. This is why co-regulation between a parent and child is so important. A parent cannot expect a favorable behavioral response from a child when they themselves are unable to demonstrate the very same behavioral response. Self care is SO important for parents for this reason. 

As we have stated, children express their feelings with their bodies, so when they are stressed and overwhelmed we SEE it before we understand what may be going on for them. Not by choice, rather it is a response to parental stress. During traumatic periods, a parent’s brain is under stress too, meaning they are less responsive in healthy ways to their children. Parents, give yourself a break and take a big breath before responding to a child. You need time for your brain to calm your body and for you to be less reactive IN THE MOMENT.

We cannot control our environments; we can control how we respond to them. We have created a list of behaviors for parents to be aware of that are indicators that a child is experiencing emotional/psychological challenges. Don’t panic, recognizing comes first, responding comes second, and seeking support from a professional comes next. 

Signs children are stressed/anxious

  • Stomach Aches/Headaches

  • Crying and difficulty managing emotions

  • Overly picky about foods, only wanting to repeat the menu everyday.

  • Sleep Challenges: Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

  • Avoiding activities or events they once enjoyed

  • Physically lashing out, hitting, striking, & throwing things

  • Negativity. “Everything is wrong”

  • Feeling overly worried. Repeating of statements

  • Anger. The perception of danger, stress or opposition triggers fight or flight, leaving your child angry and without a way to communicate.

  • Defiance. Not able to communicate what is really going on, not a lack of discipline but a situation where they are out of control, feeling helpless and having challenging behavior.

  • Overplanning: trying to control situations/events to every last detail.

  • Refusing to listen to simple instructions

  • Chandeliering: suddenly flying off the handle for no reason.

  • Lack of Focus: So caught up in their own thoughts that they can’t pay attention to what is going on around them.

  • Regression of behaviors. Such as potty training, separation anxiety, and seeking out soothing objects(blankets/stuffies).

Signs kids are depressed –

  • Depressed Mood. They just seem “down,” for no apparent reason.

  • Loss of interest/caring. Not interested in normal activity. Do they not care about things they used to enjoy?

  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness. You might  hear “I can’t do anything right.”

  • Feel helpless, like there is no way to make things improve.

  • Hopelessness/Discouraged. A lack of interest in trying, “What does it matter?” or “Who cares?” No plans for the future. 

  • Difficulty concentrating. Has trouble working on homework, listening to a conversation, or paying attention to anything for too long.

  • Agitated, irritable, over-reacting to the smallest events or comments.

  • Sad. If you took their picture throughout the day, would they smile?

  • Lack of Emotion. They might not express their feelings at all, a kind of emotional deadness.

  • Suicidal thoughts. You might hear them comment with empathy about a suicide in a movie, perhaps with a comment like, “Yeah, that’s a way out.”

  • Disconnected. Are they disconnecting from the family, friends, and other people?

  • Decreased energy. Like everything they do takes more of an effort.

  • Sleep Challenges: Trouble falling asleep, or staying asleep, or sleeping all day. 

  • Change in appetite, are they eating more or less than usual?

  • Screen-seeking. Loss of interest in anything that requires focus/work (art, writing, reading) and seeking more screen time. Hard time to get them off of screens. 

This list includes the most common behavioral and emotional responses, there may be others. In general, if a child is behaving oddly or different from their norm, there is likely some mental health challenges they are experiencing. Here are some ways you can approach your child to encourage emotional well being and decrease stress between you and them. 

Identify the emotion you see them experience (go beyond happy, mad, sad, scared) think about what they are experiencing and work to name it. If you get it wrong, that is ok, they will correct you. It is the fact that you are trying to help them figure out their feelings that they will appreciate. They will feel you have SEEN them and have responded to their NEED. This feeling heard will enhance your connection with them and decrease stress in the relationship. 

Be present. This seems simple however sitting with and being close to an upset child is a challenge! To be present you are demonstrating with your body that you are with them in their experience and are not afraid of their strong emotions. If you are working to “be with” them, you have to be not on your phone, not be distracted, not engaging in conversation. STOP TALKING! Yes, this is important, they cannot hear our words or make meaning of them when in distress. This is not the time to explain, teach, lecture, or question-this is the opposite of being present. Being present is, being ok with strong emotions, being in connection is what they NEED and what you can GIVE in this simple gesture. 

Engage in PLAY! Taking time to play with your child gives both of you “joy juice”(happy chemicals in your brain). Play means entering your child's world and following their lead. You will be surprised at what 15 min a day of child-led play could do for your relationship. As much as a child's emotional/mental health comes out in negative behaviors, it comes out in positive/relational ones too! In play, a child can tell you about the day's experience, what was fun and what sucked for them. This knowledge gives you the insight to accurately identify emotions both positive and negative. Make time to play with your child- to be curious about them, be connected with them, be with them in their emotions all of which will strengthen the child parent bond and encourage healthy emotional/mental health at the same time.  

Remember, if a child feels connected they will be protected from the hardships of life. The strategies above will encourage and strengthen your child parent bond. If you are feeling you or your child need more support reach out to a local Registered Play Therapist in your community. If you are interested in learning more about this way of parenting. Look into our sister site Playful Wisdom where you can join with other like minded parents seeking to parent the whole child in an integrative parenting style.

by Cary Hamilton LMHC, RPT-S, NCC, CMHS, CDWF

& Sarah Moran LMFT



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