Identifying Troubled Children
Identifying Troubled Children
Often children are unable to cope positively with change or stress in their lives. These transitions can leave them feeling frustrated and angry, and they can behave in ways that indicate they are at risk for emotional and social difficulties.
Predictors of Behavioral Problems
Negative behavioral patterns in children can be linked to the following three main areas within a child’s life:
Nature of the community- Children who are exposed to violence or abuse are more likely to develop behavioral issues. In addition, when there are financial difficulties or trouble gaining assistance, a child might begin to act out negatively. These environments cause children to learn suspicion, and they distrust others’ motives. When resources don’t exist in schools or communities, this heightens the developmental challenge.
Families- With a difficult child, parents may focus solely on his or her misbehavior, failing to praise a child for appropriate choices. Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse can easily lead to behavioral problems, and stress within the family may cause a child to react in an unpredictable manner.
Individual differences- Early childhood trauma, as well as genetics, can play a role in negative behavioral patterns. If children are impulsive or inattentive from a young age, they might struggle to develop emotionally, socially, and cognitively.
Early Warning Signs
Not every kid who exhibits one or more of these signs is a troubled child. However, it’s important to consider these early warning signs:
- Feeling alone, unworthy, or rejected
- Having difficulty controlling anger
- Mood swings or persistent sadness
- Not having friends
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Lacking interest in school
- Harboring intense prejudice toward those who are different
- Experiencing abuse (physical, emotional, sexual)
- Substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, tobacco)
- Writings and drawings that are violent in nature
- Experiencing violence
- Interest in or joining a gang
- Owning or having access to weapons
- Bullying, threatening, or intimidating others
- Hitting others or using physical violence against a person, animal, or property
Helping Troubled Children
Identifying and helping children with behavioral problems is not one person’s responsibility. It takes a community of people who are committed to looking for warning signs, as prevention is the most effective strategy. The following tools can guide you to help troubled children:
Know developmental milestones- Sometimes we might think a behavior is a warning sign of future problems. In reality, it could be developmentally appropriate for the child’s age. It’s important to understand when and how children pass developmental milestones. Learning to interact socially and emotionally takes time, and each child’s progression is slightly different.
Understand the behavior- Consider the rationale behind the behavior. Many troubled children have aggressive and violent tendencies because they don’t know how to cope with life’s stresses. No one has modeled for them positive coping methods, and perhaps the child has only been shown attention for their misbehavior. Empathizing with the child is key to understanding the causes behind the behavior.
Develop a caring relationship- Children will open up when they feel safe. Listen to their concerns and help them feel heard. Avoid punishing only negative behaviors and take opportunities to reward positive choices. Modeling healthy coping methods in your own life reinforces positive behavior as well.
Take threats seriously- Get help immediately if a child threatens to harm themselves or others. Be sure there isn’t access to weapons or other means of inflicting self-harm. Alert authorities, teachers, school officials, etc., to prevent action on any verbal or written threats. No one person can be with a child 24 hours a day. Involve the necessary individuals to help oversee the child and situation.
Don’t stereotype a child- Troubled behavior is not a reason to punish and isolate a child. Stereotyping or labeling a child can also be damaging, so don’t assume that academic ability, socioeconomic status, or physical appearances are signs of troubled behavior. Also, one warning sign does not necessarily indicate a troubled child.
Don’t blame yourself- Many parents assume blame, thinking they are responsible for their child’s behavior. There are multiple factors involved in predicting troubled behavior, and many of these are outside a parent’s control. Guilt is never a helpful emotion. Instead, focus on being there for your child and helping them get the support and care they need.
Identifying a troubled child is not assigning them a lifelong diagnosis. Children with behavioral problems don’t have to become troubled adults. Mental health professionals and school staff are available to teach positive ways to cope with life stressors as a child transitions to adolescence or adulthood. The best strategy for success is surrounding yourself with a team of individuals who are willing and able to support both you and your child.
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