Identifying when your child is having a hard time emotionally can be tricky. It is important to remember the way a child and an adult reacts to stress, sadness, frustration and anxiety will often look very different. Noticing changes in your child’s behavior or demeanor and being aware of what is happening in their lives is critical, particularly for younger children.

If a child complains of consistent headaches or stomach aches and there is no obvious cause for these physical symptoms, evaluate what is happening in the child’s life. Is there stress at home over finances or someone’s health? Has there been a recent death or separation from a close friend or loved one? Have they started a new school or had problems interacting with peers? Evaluate major changes in your life and theirs. Rather than seeming overly sad or nervous, the effects of anxiety and depression in your child can be exhibited through physical symptoms. A child may also be uncharacteristically clingy, tearful, moody or aggressive, especially in young children who have not established coping skills.

If you have sought help from your pediatrician and ruled out any physical cause for recurring symptoms, you don’t want to assume the situation will resolve on its own. Untreated emotional and behavioral issues can become harder to treat and progress to impact physical health. Licensed therapists and psychiatrists who specialize in working with children and adolescents are trained in ways to help identify behavioral issues. Therapeutic techniques help them collect information from the child, even those who don’t have very developed communication skills. Often times the way a child speaks, plays, creates and reacts to situations helps clinicians understand what the child is feeling.

“One of our biggest struggles is having people recognize that undesirable behaviors are often symptoms of actual, treatable behavioral health conditions and not just simply bad behavior,” said John D. Damon, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer for Canopy Children’s Solutions. “If in behavioral healthcare we solely focus on the behavior and not the underlying causes, the child is not going to get better. You have to look deeper. What can make it additionally difficult is when a child’s reaction manifests itself in a physical way in addition to changes in behavior. It is important to look at the whole picture.”

Damon also discusses how in the healthcare field mental healthcare and physical healthcare are often put into separate “silos” as if they are unconnected. In reality, mind and body should not be thought of as separate distinctions as both are equally important components to achieving overall wellness. Poor physical health can lead to an increased risk of developing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Similarly, poor mental health can negatively impact physical health such as increased rates of stroke and heart disease. Treating a child for behavioral health issues should be a cooperative effort between your primary care physician and behavioral health provider.

Ways to Help Promote Overall Health

Even children who don’t experience “life-altering” events can have behavioral and emotional challenges. As their parent, you know your child best and what is “normal” for them. Promoting physical and mental health as a family will help you identify it early when changes in your child occur. It also teaches your child the importance of giving your body all the things it needs, which builds positive life-long habits. Here are a few things you can do to support your and your child’s physical and mental health:
  • Promote whole-body wellness as a family activity. Get outside and enjoy some physical activity together. A brisk family walk can be a good time to talk about things happening in one another’s lives without the distraction of tasks waiting at home.
  • Fuel your body with healthy, colorful foods. Good nutrition not only gives your bones and muscles the things they need to stay healthy but also helps your brain maintain optimal function.
  • Getting enough sleep is critical for your mind and body to rest and heal. Long-term sleep loss can have a great effect on tired bodies and has a significant impact on the brain’s ability to recall information, think critically, and ability to focus.
  • Enjoy some quiet time with family meditation. Before starting, talk about things that have been bothering you. Talking about feelings and worries provides an emotional release. Follow that by brief meditation to clear your mind and relax your body for stress relief.
  • Dehydration can affect functions such as problem-solving, coordination and concentration but it can also lead to extreme heat exhaustion and death if not properly addressed, especially during physical activity.

“The more support we can provide and the earlier we can get to children who need help, the better off our society will be and the healthier and happier our kids will be,” said Damon. “Change starts at home and I hope more parents will begin to promote positive mental and physical health and seek help when needs arise.”

Contributed by Laura Walker, staff writer for Canopy Children’s Solutions.

This article was featured in Well-Being Magazine January 2019 edition. Click here for more helpful resources from Well-Being.