A child’s behavior is intimately entwined with the stress and difficulties of their living environment. The child may not always understand what is going on around them, but they are acutely aware of any tension.
However, parents are often blind to the link between problems at home and their child’s poor behavior. They tell me, ‘Our relationship is a mess, but our children know nothing about it’; or ‘My husband is about to be made redundant, but our children don’t realise how stressed we are’; or ‘I’m being treated for major depression, but I pretend I am happy when the kids are around’; or ‘We moved across the country to a new job. We have a nice house with lots of space, but for some reason the children seem unsettled’; and ‘Grandpa is dying from cancer, but we haven’t told the children.’
I have two cocker spaniel pups. These dogs have never attended a university course in counseling but they are totally in tune with feelings. If I am about to leave on a lecture tour they act strangely, hiding behind curtains and becoming extremely unsettled. They are like little children: they don’t know what is happening, but they feel. Never underestimate the effect of stress, change or parental unhappiness on a child.
How children react
Young children have super-sensitive antennae which pick up on upset and translate it back as a change in behavior. Most commonly, a child will react to tension by becoming unsettled and ill at ease: they have a vague restlessness, seem unavailable, have upset sleep or their performance at school suffers.
Another reaction they have to stress is anger. Parents start by being upset with each other and the child tunes in to their feelings. The child doesn’t know what is going on between Mum and Dad but they don’t like what they feel. They react to this stress by digging in their heels, being difficult or dumping on Mum.
This reaction can easily escalate. The parents are struggling with their own emotions; the child picks up on their upset and gives them a blast. The stressed parent reacts to this with anger, and then the child becomes doubly confused. This problem is common where there is relationship stress, family illness, and relocation or money worries.
The under-six-year-old may react with clinginess and regression. They pick up on the uncertainty in their environment and grasp tightly to that life belt, their mum. In a family break-up a child knows they have lost one parent and are quite determined they will not lose the other. So they may be reluctant to separate from Mum when she drops them off at school, or they may come to her bed at night.
A few children show their stress by withdrawal. The child feels ill at ease, becomes solitary and quiet and loses enthusiasm for their usual activities. This is most common in the over-eight-year-old. As they withdraw away from us, it is hard to know at which point a normal reaction to stress becomes serious depression.
Whatever the reaction, whether it is restlessness, anger, clinging or withdrawal, these children are shouting at the top of their voices, I don’t know what you are doing but it hurts.’
Filed Under: Family & Relationships
About the Author: Roberta Southworth is a psychiatrist by profession. She likes to help out people by writing informative tips on how people can to solve their family and relationship issues. She is currently staying in Ireland. She has 5 years of couple counseling experience.