Helping Your Child in Emotional Pain – It’s Not So Easy

A number of the “11 Action Signs” published recently by the Mayo Clinic to help parents, caregivers and health care professionals better recognize when a child may be suffering from a behavioral or emotional disorder (see the November 3rd post by Stefanie Zucker) were very familiar to me.

We witnessed some of these in our son when he was 6-7 years old: crying on the way to school and faking illness to stay home (he put a thermometer up to a light bulb to fake a fever!); often being very difficult and argumentative – then collapsing into meltdowns; sitting in a corner behind the sofa hugging his knees and rocking; saying things such as, “I’m not like other kids.”

It was so difficult to witness our son going through this kind of emotional pain. Eventually we determined that he was VERY unhappy at his school – due to some bullying, and overall dysfunction in his class and the school generally. However, it wasn’t so easy to figure out that there was something really negative going on at school – and that his emotional state was being seriously compromised as a result. He didn’t share what went on during his day, even when I asked – a typical boy! And the changes in his behavior came on slowly, in fits and starts. It was also hard to compare current to past behavior because kids keep growing and changing – not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally. What constitutes “normal” at any given point? This is especially challenging because, as the Mayo Clinic report points out, most kids exhibit these behaviors at some point.

But the challenges do not stop at identification. What do you do when you begin to recognize the signs that your child is in emotional pain? Do you try talking to him – or involve a trusted family friend with whom he might be more open? Do you talk to his teacher? What if the teacher isn’t trained on these dimensions and insinuates that your child has a character flaw or that his behavior must be due to issues at home? Does it occur to you to contact his pediatrician or a child psychologist (do you even have one on hand)? Or do you – or your spouse – worry about stigma or that it might be overkill to involve a medical professional?

I experienced all of these situations. When I confided in another mother from school that our son was very unhappy and wanted to change schools, she asked if we would really let him push such a decision – and that from a primary care doctor with 2 kids! All these experiences and uncertainties can undermine your confidence in the right path of action.

In the end we had TWO medical professionals recommend his immediate removal from his current school. Fast forward 2 years – and an entirely different (and wonderful!) school – and life is altogether different. Or back to an earlier state we had forgotten about. After just two months in the new school, he was so much happier and better behaved – and back to singing and dancing around the house as he did things. We even remembered that we used to call him “Tigger” – because of the way he bounced around everywhere, full of infectious energy and enthusiasm.

Throughout this process I tried hard to show my son how special and loved he was. I had many long talks with him to try to help him cope with whatever was going on. When he said he was different and kids didn’t like him – one day solemnly proclaiming: “I’m the least popular kid in my class and the third least-popular kid in the school” – I told him to remember that everyone was different and worthy – and that “no kid fits everywhere, but EVERYONE fits somewhere.” And at Christmas two years ago – when everything was coming to a head – “Santa” wrote him an encouraging letter and gave him a plaque – that hangs proudly right over his bed:

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


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