When his grandfather died, the little boy threw a tantrum. He was too young to fully understand what had happened, or why; he only knew he would never see his grandpa again. He said he hated all his books except one. It was the one his grandpa had given him as a present. In many ways, the little boy made it easy for his parents. They knew exactly why he was upset. His behavior was an outward sign of his distress, and it guided the type of reassuring response he needed. This isn’t always the case.
Signs a child is upset
Very young children have neither the comprehension nor the vocabulary to fully express their emotions. They struggle to understand and articulate the upset they feel. They may appear perfectly normal one moment and retreat into themselves the next.
Children are often the silent witnesses of upsets in the adult world. Fighting between parents can be unsettling for children. Similarly, deaths in the family, the loss of a pet, bullying or teasing at school can quickly make their mark. Children just want things to be settled. When they aren’t, they express their emotions in various ways.
One emotional outlet for young children is through play. Just listening to the form of words a child uses can help illuminate the things troubling them. Toys sometimes take on the characters of bullies, or monsters. As a parent or guardian, this can be an opportunity to find out more: “Teddy seems very angry today. Why is he upset?” This can be just enough to give the child an opportunity to express their feelings. A little gentle encouragement, perhaps by continuing to use the toys, can help fill in the gaps. It’s a short step from this point to inquire whether such an upset has happened to the child.
Anger and frustration can also be revealed through aggressive or destructive behavior. There is a balance to be struck between finding out the cause and pointing out that such behavior is unacceptable. You might ask, “Are you angry because someone else is being angry?” Try not to judge the behavior so much as point out how dangerous it might be to others or themselves.
When your child won’t talk
If a child chooses not to speak, it is common for parents to fear the worst, with abuse coming high on the list. But there are reasons other than abuse as to why a child shuts off communication. For example:
Selective mutism is a fear of being heard in select situations. It tends to develop in early school years around the same time as common phobias, such as hearing strange noises or fear of the dark. Possible causes include anxiety issues or speech, language, or hearing problems.
Depression in children is becoming more recognized. Low moods, tearfulness, or irritability not focused on any particular thing can be signs. Older children may see work suffering at school. They may become withdrawn and sullen. Things that used to interest them are pushed aside. For adults, it’s important never to trivialize or dismiss what a child says. It may seem of little consequence to you, but this is clearly not the case to the child. Take what they say seriously and work with it. Seek professional help if moods continue and behavior fails to improve.
Bullying comes in many forms and can occur at quite a young age. It can include name-calling, deliberate exclusion, texting, tricks designed to humiliate, and of course physical violence. These are just a few of the creative ways children can victimize others. The child being bullied may have any number of reasons for not speaking out. Look out for changes in eating habits, nervousness, disrupted sleep or bedwetting, and loss of personal possessions. If you suspect bullying and your child won’t speak, it may be worth arranging for them to speak with a trusted adult. Sometimes children won’t speak out because they fear the reaction from their parents and the embarrassment that comes with that. It’s important therefore that your response is proportionate and measured.
Child sexual exploitation is a complex issue. Children are at greatest risk if they are homeless, in foster care, or have had a recent bereavement or loss. Very young children may not even know they have been abused. If you believe that a child in your care is being sexually abused, seek professional guidance. The website preventchildabuse.org provides a useful list of emergency contacts.
It’s easier for a child to talk about their feelings if they are used to talking to their parents. The website Aha! Parenting offers some very useful tips for adults about engaging with children as well as the things to avoid.
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Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.