We have all seen them. Children screaming at the top of their lungs, yelling no at every instruction, hitting, biting, kicking… The list goes on and on. What causes these children to act in such an unacceptable manner? There can be any number of reasons, but we are going to focus on emotionally disturbed children.
What does “emotionally disturbed” mean? According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System Glossary, emotionally disturbed is a clinically diagnosed condition “exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree: an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships; inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances; a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal problems.” In children, this condition can be compounded by what is considered a difficult age in a normal child, such as the toddler years or adolescence.
So what can you do to help an emotionally disturbed child in your family learn to cope with life, while not going crazy yourself?
1. Pick your battles. Emotionally disturbed children tend to go from one bad behavior to another, whether it’s screaming for no apparent reason, throwing their toys all over the room, attacking a sibling, etc. While it may be tempting to punish them for each infraction, if you put them in time out for every little misbehavior, you’ll soon discover they spend most of their waking hours in the “naughty chair.” Not only is it frustrating for you to have to constantly place them in time out, it is frustrating for the emotionally disturbed child as well. How do you know if the behavior is worth punishing? It varies with each individual child, but if no one is in danger of serious harm and nothing is likely to get broken, it might be worth ignoring the behavior for now and focus on preventing the more serious issues of bodily harm and destruction of property.
2. Stay calm. When dealing with an emotionally disturbed child, it is easy to grow angry or frustrated when nothing seems to help. However, it is important to keep up the appearance of calm and speak in as soothing a manner as possible. All children will pick up on anger and frustration, but emotionally disturbed children tend to be more sensitive to the moods of those around them and are much more likely to react in an inappropriate manner to any perceived negativity. By reacting calmly in even the most chaotic of situations, not only will you be demonstrating the proper way to react, you will also help the emotionally disturbed child feel less like his world is out of control.
3. Focus on the good. Many emotionally disturbed children crave attention, but their emotional problems cause them to act in ways that attracts negative attention. One way to counteract the downward spiral of behavior caused by focusing on the misbehavior, try instead to focus on the good behavior. Even something as simple as thanking the child for playing quietly or doing a good job of dressing for the day can make her feel good and loved. By paying attention to the good behavior instead of always focusing on the bad, you will help the child see that doing good things makes her feel much better than doing bad things. This positive reinforcement can go a long way to bringing peace into the household.
4. Let it go. When dealing with an emotionally disturbed child, there will be bad days when everything seems to go wrong and you wonder if anything you do will ever help the child live a normal and productive life. As frustrating as those days can be, for your own well-being and that of the child, let go of the negativity and assume tomorrow will be a better day. Each new day brings new opportunity to help the emotionally disturbed child improve. If you hold onto the hopeless and frustrated feelings from the previous day, you set both the child and yourself up for failure. By letting go of that hopelessness and frustration and starting each day with a positive outlook, you have much greater odds of making a positive impact on the life of the emotionally disturbed child.
5. Take time for yourself. Dealing with an emotionally disturbed child day after day is emotionally draining for any caregiver. In order to be most helpful to the child, you need to take time for yourself and focus on keeping yourself mentally and emotionally healthy as well as physically healthy. Going out for coffee with friends, taking a solitary walk around the neighborhood, even just curling up with a good book while the emotionally disturbed child is asleep are all good ways to relax and recharge yourself to deal with the child once more. Take time at least once a week to do something you enjoy. It will go a long way to helping you stay calm in the storm of emotions brought forth by dealing with an emotionally disturbed child, and when you are calm, the child is calmer.
While this list provides some suggestions for dealing with an emotionally disturbed child and still keeping your sanity, it is always best to talk to your child’s counselor or doctor about a plan of action for the child. Each child is unique and faces their own individual challenges, so what works for one child may not be as effective for another.
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