Every day, the phone rings at our psychology practice with a range of calls about children with problems. Parents, carers, doctors, psychiatrists, paediatricians, teachers and welfare workers all call about children that need help. We get calls about tots, teens and “tweens”.
Looking at the types of calls coming through can tell us a bit about what is going on for kids out there these days. The health and happiness of our children is a great measure of how we are doing as a society. So, if children aren’t healthy and happy, what are the things that are not working for them? What is it they need?
In no particular order, here is a broad sample of our current, most common, requests to help young people and some ideas about what these problems tell us about children’s needs. Please keep in mind that the enquiries we have won’t include the huge number of wonderful things happening for children in the world. Remember, in a psychology practice, we are always going to see a skewed sample. It’s the nature of our business.
Anxiety – There are so many things in the World you could be worried about.
When we see children who are anxious or frightened, it tends not so much to be about the fear of the dark or the bogey men anymore. It seems to be more of a generalised sense they have that the world is a dangerous place. Children might reflect the anxieties of their grown-ups. For some children and their families there is so much heightened arousal about the world and their role in it. There is so much that can go wrong or so much that you might get wrong – exams, fitting in, missing out. The child is convinced they need to be constantly prepared for catastrophe.
Children need a balanced view of the world – sometimes it is beautiful and sometimes it is tragic – always has been and, likely, always will be.
Friendship and loneliness issues – from bullies to heart break.
A number of children present with significant sadness and worry about having no friends, feeling left out or being avoided by other who used to be friends. Some have broken hearts – not necessarily of the boyfriend/girlfriend type, but more about the abandonment of previously held friendships. Some of these children have autism and developmental problems and need help with skills. It is so easy for some children to give up and stop trying to make friends because they can get so caught up in what’s wrong with them that they just don’t see how much of them is perfectly fine.
Children need connections.
Family breakdown – Can you really hate your ex more than you love your child?
The time and effort that ex-partners can put into hating each other is astounding. It is tough to see a child who loves both parents being torn because the parents are at war with each other. It’s great to know that many separated families can do an exceptional job or raising a child across two homes, but the Family Court is still busy with the couples who have a situation so complex, that the child or children miss out on so much of what is needed to be settled, healthy and content. Long and extended Court battles over custody seldom bring out the best in grownups.
Children need grownups who put their needs ahead of their hate for the ex-partner. They certainly don’t need to hear what an awful person Mum thinks Dad is or vice versa.
Self harm – Trying to find ways that can soothe when life gets hard
Self harm – cutting, burning or injuring yourself – has spiked in referrals in recent years and can be complex to understand. Ironic as it sounds, some of the presenting self harm issues are attempts to soothe when life gets too hard. Sometimes talking and posting about your self harm is a way to belong with a large online community – an attractive proposition to the otherwise lonely. The more recent trend in referrals to treat self harm include younger children in their late primary school years. Self harm is something that needs a proper, professional assessment.
Generally speaking, children need to be encouraged to speak up about their problems to attentive adults and to learn how to soothe themselves without the need for inflicting pain on themselves, or others.
Child maltreatment and trauma – Oh, how I would love to live in a world where children could grow up without early exposure to abuse or neglect.
Brain research is now showing us the biological and long term impacts of child maltreatment on young brains and the protective factors that abound when there is healthy early attachment to a predictable and loving grown up. Attention problems, hyperactivity, anxiety, depression, anger and difficulties regulating emotions and behaviours can all stem from abuse and neglect. Mum and Dad may love you, but they may also be what I call “parentally-challenged”. Their substance abuse issues, working hours, or their priorities about keeping up with the Joneses can trump time at home with the children. These days neglect can also mean long hours spent on the internet or gaming devices without supervision or without someone to tell you to go to sleep or eat some breakfast.
Children need safety, affection, attention and boundaries.
The cyber world – faster, broader, easier to access, difficult to monitor, but the way of the future.
At the nuisance level, children (and indeed adults), can have trouble moving from a most preferred activity to a least preferred activity – asking a child to get off the computer can sometimes cause a huge reaction. There can also be a gap between what Mum and Dad know and what children are actually exposing themselves to online. At the more sinister end is the exploitation of young ones who inadvertently click or swipe their way into a dangerous liaison. There is also a trend to seeing more young people in trouble with the Law for sharing too much of themselves, or too much of their boy/girlfriend, with others. On the other hand, there are not too many school rooms with chalk boards these days – chalk boards may as well be stone tablets etched Fred Flintstone style. Connection to the cyber world is a really important part of current educations and learning.
Children need to be exposed to the cyber world because it will continue to be a large component of their lives and future lifestyles. However, children need someone on yard duty in the cyber playground!
Access to substances – using alcohol and illicit substances can make the dumb decisions sometimes expected in adolescence, even dumber!
It would be great if we knew that children were never going to be exposed to substances that could harm them. Some of the most harmful substances are the ones that are legal and used often in the household. While the brain is still growing, it needs to be sheltered form additional toxic chemistry associated with alcohol and drugs. The thrill seeking that naturally accompanies adolescence means that often alcohol and substance use is combined with fast cars and other potential dangers.
Children need to learn about harms and their risk-taking in age appropriate ways and to feel supported to make a brave, smart decision even though it may be unpopular with their friends.
Perfectionism and body image – Eat (or starve), sleep, school, repeat.
While eating disorders remain some of the most dangerous mental health problems amongst young people, there is also an insidious amount of perfectionism sneaking into to the belief systems of our younglings. Some young people can freeze or melt down at the thought of making a mistake or not getting an “A” on an assignment. They are driven to make tighter and tighter rules and higher benchmarks for themselves to avoid an ever present fear of letting someone down or not being good enough.
Children need to know that it’s human to make mistakes and to know that they are already so very loveable. There is also a need for children to understand the importance of balance and healthy fun with good friends.
So, the issues that children bring to their psychological treatment reflect a lot about what is going on in our society. Child safety and the need for affectionate and warm relationships with grownups are still paramount. Their current issues show difficulties adapting to, and getting the most out of, our fast paced and changing society without compromising themselves. Children need healthy and safe grownups and lots of opportunities for connecting and communicating with others to help them find their way.
Everyone – It’s really important to remember that there is always going to be more right with a child than wrong with them. When we help, we need to consider what is happening with their developing biology and brain and their thinking and beliefs, but also their home, their school, their friends and the society that they live in.