Children go through all kinds of phases – picky eating, bedwetting, difficulty sleeping – but how do you know when a problem stops being “just a phase” and starts becoming something more worrisome? Mental health issues are far more common in children than most realize, affecting as many as 1 in 5 children or teenagers, and as many as 1 in 10 have significant daily impairment due to these issues. Here are X signs you child is struggling with more than a passing problem.
The Too Picky Eater
Picky eating is common in childhood and for the most part it’s simply part of the developmental process. Children’s palates are inexperienced and it can take as many as seven exposures to a new food in order for a child to overcome distaste for unfamiliar flavors. But sometimes picky eating is a sign that something more is going on. Unlike moderately picky eaters who typically outgrow the issue easily, children who are severely picky may be suffering from additional difficulties.
Severely picky eaters may be coping with several problems, including hypersensitivity to smells, tastes or textures. Highly restrictive eating patterns may also signal anxiety or ADHD. If your child not only refuses to eat more than a few foods but also seems overwhelmed by being around food or people eating, there may be something more going on.
Potty Training Problems
Any parent who’s been through the process can tell you that potty training is something that will only happen at the child’s pace, so trying to force the issue will likely get you nowhere. Typically all you can do is watch for corresponding developmental cues and daily habits, offer appealing toilet training supplies and rewards, and be sure that there are no digestive issues or allergies impeding the physical process.
Difficulty with toilet training past age three signals an underlying physical issue, but more troublesome is regression after successful toilet training. Sometimes this may signal temporary stress like starting preschool or the birth of a new sibling, but regression that goes on for more than a few weeks or that doesn’t correspond with a major life change may be an expression of trauma due to abuse. Regression is your child’s way of telling you something isn’t right and that they may be helped by working with a specialist. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration can be a good source of information about where to turn.
As children develop the ability to use language, they often find that they are unable to clearly express their needs or emotions. This can be a source of great frustration, often leading to temper tantrums in the toddler years and contributing to our image of the terrible twos.
But of course, anyone who has seen a child through the early years of life can tell you that these tantrums remain common well beyond age two as children press their limits and learn to express themselves. Remaining calm and consistent is the best response to these behaviors.
However, if your formerly well-behaved child suddenly begins having major temper flares, outbursts of anger, or physical aggression, it’s important to have your child evaluated. Sudden mood changes can be a sign of developing mental health issues ranging from depression to things like oppositional defiant disorder.
Although childrearing doesn’t come with a handbook, the best thing to do when you notice a concerning childhood behavior is to consider factors like intensity, duration, and age-appropriateness and to generally stay on the side of caution. Children with undiagnosed mental health issues can suffer major social and academic problems, so it is better to stay on the side of caution if you’re worried about a new or persistent behavior.