By Dr Anuneet Sabharwal
The trend of young children facing mental health issues is growing alarmingly. As young people cannot articulate their issues, a proper diagnosis becomes very difficult. Parents and teachers have to be attentive towards the mental and emotional needs of the children.
It may seem that the life of a child is easy and stress-free. But in reality, the modern world places a lot of stress on the child. Performance anxiety has become a part and parcel of life. There are so many expectations the child has to bear as the burden of. Even children as small as two to three-years-old are faced with an overload of activities they are occupied with all day long.
Children do not have time to be children. Parents are over ambitious and want their little ones to fulfil all their dreams. Their achievements become the topic of conversation. Every parent is competitive and wants their child to be the best in academics, sports and every other activity that is available. What escapes the adult is that there is a growing frenetic activity spree that sees children in a poetry class, drawing class, dance class, jungle gym and so on. The child never gets the time for play.
The best thing about childhood is play. Today, even if the child gets a few minutes of playtime, the activity is not about free play, but structured play. This is stressful for the child. Childhood is a time that should be unfettered and free. The child’s natural curiosity and innocence is smothered. Paucity of time, the burden of expectations and parental demands often leave children depressed and stressed.
Children are innocent and can show signs of being stressed and depressed in many ways.
• Regressive behaviours like bedwetting and crying uncontrollably could be signs of anxiety and stress. The distressed child can go back to the behaviour that he/she displayed as a baby.
• Nail-biting, head-butting and crankiness, in general, is also common.
• Some children become belligerent and throw tantrums, while some children become despondent and withdrawn. These are signs of trouble and should be heeded at the outset.
• The child refuses to eat and is uncharacteristically quiet. Look for other signs of stress.
Any sudden change in behaviour may not be a sign of stress and depression, but if the pattern persists, it may be time to get professional help.
The first step is to give the child some free time when they can be themselves. In this era of small and nuclear families, children crave relationships and love. Take them on frequent outings; ensure a healthy relationship with their grandparents and extended family. The child should be given adequate attention and parents should try and spend as much quality time with them as possible.
Busy parents often try to compensate a lack of time with gifts. The child grows up giving importance to material things and not people. This needs to change. Encourage the child to mix with other children, take him/her to parks and other natural surroundings. This will help de-stress the child.
Parents should listen to their children. Children need to be heard and given attention. There should be clear boundaries that the child is not to cross. Children respect boundaries and feel secure when they are drawn out for them. Tough love is also necessary. Some parents try to be more of a friend to their children, without understanding that young children need an authority figure they can look up to.
Teach children that they can talk to parents about anything that they feel like. If they are facing trouble in school or at home, the parents should be the first to know. Learn to say no sometimes. Let children learn delayed gratification. Research says that children who could choose to delay gratification are often successful in later life.
Teachers should also show initiative in making the child comfortable at school. Any unusual behaviour should be noted and discussed with parents or the school counsellor. Exam time can be especially stressful. Both teachers and parents should try and take away the fear of examinations. Marks are important, but not the be all and end all of life. The stress to do well, and meeting parental expectations can lead to depression, and even turn the child suicidal.
Be aware and seek help if you think your child is facing any such problem. There should be no stigma to being distressed. Seek help and improve the child’s future.
(The writer is MBBS, MD Psychiatry.)