How to Prevent Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in Children: A Parent’s Guide

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In order to learn how to prevent emotional and behavioral disorders in children, we need to understand that, contrary to popular belief, disorders such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and almost all others, are in my opinion and my clinical experience, NOT caused by genetics and biology! As has been demonstrated to me countless times, they occur when a child is born with a particularly sensitive temperament, and then experiences certain adverse childhood stressors, which because of his sensitive nature, are experienced as a trauma. The emotional disorder is the body and mind’s maladaptive attempt to cope with that trauma. Some children are born very hardy and resilient, and can even suffer abuse and come out more or less without any real disorders, but some children are born so sensitive, that even moderate stressors coming from loving, well-intentioned parents who are unfortunately making some very common mistakes, can cause a stress response and generate emotional disorders!

What I’m telling you is actually fantastic news!

If I were to tell you that such disorders are all genetic and biological, there would be nothing you could do to prevent them, and little you could do to cure, as you can’t very well change a child’s genetics or his biology. But since in showing you how to prevent emotional and behavioral disorders in children, I’m telling you that it’s stressors from the environment that is fueling the problem, by changing the child’s environment and the way you interact with him, you can largely prevent these disorders from forming! And even if a disorder has already developed, you can do much to prevent it from intensifying, and you can even bring about a significant cure, even with older children! The Parent-Child Relationship is so powerful, that anytime you adjust it for the better you will have major beneficial effects on your child, I’ve seen it happen many times!

If you are a parent reading this article, you are most likely extremely loving and dedicated, and want only the absolute best for your child; you only want to learn how to prevent emotional and behavioral disorders

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The problem is, there are many common mistakes that parents tend to make, specifically, when they are trying to help their child so much, but they overdo it in certain areas, paradoxically doing more harm than good! The truth is, how many courses on Parenting did you take in college? And did you realize that 90 percent of the popular Parenting books out there offer, in my opinion, terrible advice! Parenting is the most difficult, complicated job in the world, and it involves the gravest of consequences. You must find QUALITY advice from someone who has been through it all before and can guide you on how to avoid the common pitfalls and mistakes that inexperienced parents usually make. This article will attempt to help you in this area.

Rule Number 1: Be Gentle!

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Again, contrary to popular belief, children are not at all tough or resilient. They are extremely fragile and sensitive, like a tiny seedling plant. Any harshness whatsoever can have devastating, lifelong effects. Therefore it pays to be extremely reserved and cautious with potentially harsh Parenting Interventions such as scolding, reprimands, criticism – even so called constructive criticism, over-control and micromanaging, rebukes, punishment, time-outs, yelling, shaming, and ignoring. Most parents use these interventions at least at times, precisely because they want so much the best for their child, and they feel that it’s necessary. But my critical point is that in my experience, the benefit gained through such harsh interventions is almost always heavily outweighed by the damage done to the child’s emotional health, and the ever-important Parent-Child Relationship!

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Let’s say you baked a cake for some guests,

and a 5-year old couldn’t resist the temptation and stuck his hands in it and ruined it, and you scolded him for his misdeed. You have to remember how unbelievably shocking and shaming a scolding is to a young child! They wither in terror under a parental rebuke! Children completely idealize their parents and look up to them with no exaggeration as if they were Gods. Scolding a child, even for a genuine misdeed, creates an extremely powerful shame response. In that moment, the child has no maturity and presence of mind to think, “Ok I made a mistake, she’s only angry for now, later she will forgive me and it will all be forgotten, and I won’t do it again.” Instead the child in that moment is emotionally shattered because the reprimand has actually temporarily cut off his emotional life-cord with the parent. That’s it, at the moment of rebuke a child feels emotionally abandoned. What is supposed to be his or her very source of desperately needed emotional sustenance, has become the reverse, the source of shame and stress! I grew up working with young children, from grade school through college, at my mother’s Montessori School, so I have a unique awareness of how young children really think and feel. Is it worth making a child feel that way over a 20 dollar cake? Such rebukes, if regularly administered, create all sorts of low self-esteem, anxiety and behavior problems. Even if the child learns his lesson and never touches a cake again, so you have protected a few cakes, but what have you done to the child’s emotional health? The truth is, he most likely WON’T learn from the mistake, because the scolding was so unpleasant that he blocks it out of his memory. In addition, the experience has sharply lowered his happiness level, which as I have written about in my blog, only fuels more misbehavior.

Therefore before we administer any of the above, even slightly harsh, negative Parenting Interventions, we need to do a careful cost/benefit analysis:

Is whatever lesson I am trying to teach the child worth the damage to his self-esteem and emotional health? How do I even know that he possesses the maturity and ability to even appreciate the lesson? We must remember that such interventions seriously compromise the critical Parent-Child Relationship! It is the most important element in any child’s life! We must zealously guard that relationship at all costs, and never sacrifice it for some dubious lesson in propriety.

Don’t catastrophize!

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Most commonly the problem is, that the parent fears that a misbehavior, although in itself may not be that terrible, is going to lead to further misbehavior and spiral out of control into a truly intolerable and shameful situation. The parent fears that her house and family is heading towards bedlam! For example, parents think, “If I let him do that then he will do it in public around other people and it will be embarrassing, impolite, and anti-social.” Or maybe they fear, “If I ignore that disrespect it will lead to further intolerable disrespect.” Often they fear, “If my child’s behavior continues to deteriorate at this rate, after some time, he or she will be truly incorrigible and I will have failed as a parent!” These fears and others swirl in a parents’ head at the time of mischief, and they feel that they absolutely must administer a stiff reprimand or consequence to prevent what they perceive as a potential disaster. So I’m here to tell you that in my life-long experience of working with children, and also my experience raising my own four boys, 99 percent of the time those fears are totally unwarranted! Children have rambunctious, erratic energy, and they seem to be progressing towards intolerable behavior, but almost always, by patiently tolerating the misbehavior and only ever so gently redirecting it, the mischief fizzles out just as quickly as it arose, and you are left with your angelic child just as he or she was before, without any of the terrible effects of shaming, punishment or scolding!

The amazing truth is, it is precisely those harsh interventions which actually cause all kinds of anti-social behavior problems!

I have seen it many times. So again it is the parents sincere desire to correct and benefit their children, that is mistakenly causing the very problem they are trying so hard to avoid!

Let’s take the issue of spoiled children.

Many parents fear terribly that their child will be spoiled by their being too nice and generous with him or her, therefore they on purpose behave more strictly to prevent the child from being coddled or entitled. But in my experience, it is precisely being too strict which actually causes children to act spoiled! I’ve never seen a child act spoiled who has parents who are too nice. I have seen very clearly throughout the years, that kindness, generosity, sweetness, patience and tolerance always creates the opposite of spoiled children, it creates delightful, happy, well-adjusted ones.

We must remember that children are naturally very disorganized, energetic and at times very mischievous.

They absolutely need to make many volumes of mistakes in order to learn! It prevents so many problems when we tolerate their mischief, misdeeds and mistakes with a smile and a sigh, “That’s kids being normal and healthy.” Kids are supposed to ruin your house to a certain extent, and drive you crazy! However over-correcting for mistakes with harshness and reprimands, seriously lowers the contentment level and actually fuels more of the misbehavior, trouble and shame we are trying to prevent! It is called reframing, that as we reframe the misbehavior as actually well within the range of normalcy and acceptability.

Great expectations.

Many parents have big dreams and aspirations for their children; they want them to be successful and happy and a lifelong source of joy and pride. This is a legitimate and worthy desire. So parents often make efforts to encourage and promote their children’s success, that’s part of raising them, right? However again it’s the parents’ great intentions and desire for the benefit and success of their children, that often generates parental pressure to achieve and succeed, which usually paradoxically and amazingly prevents and derails the very success it purports to accomplish! We must remember that emotional health is a prerequisite to worldly success, and that health can only be had in a gentle, warm, pleasant, positive and pressure-free childhood environment. Any pressure to achieve, if administered in even a slightly negative way, usually discourages success, but it is a deep enjoyment of every step of the process of achievement, gained in a pleasant, relaxed environment, that lays a true foundation for greatness. That’s the simple truth, making kids happy from moment to moment, and teaching them to enjoy their schoolwork and activities, that is what will get them into a great college and will give them a joyous and successful life. But unpleasant pressure will 90 percent of the time result in failure and great problems, or for example in the case of Andre Agassi, great objective success but abject emotional disaster and misery. Most highly successful people were taught to deeply enjoy their work from their youth, and it is that enjoyment that fueled their greatness. But trying to force and pressure greatness onto a child usually fails, and in the few cases when it succeeds, it creates major emotional health problems.

“Dad you’re too bossy,”

was something an astute 7-year old client of mine once said. Many parents, in their noble efforts to guide their beloved children onto the correct path, tend to over-control and micromanage them. Sometimes this occurs when parents are simply tired, and insist on strict compliance to save them the effort involved in a given activity. But too much control prevents a child from achieving that great golden goal: self-determination. An infant has very little choice over things, and a 25-year old may do whatever he wants, but how do we get from here to there? Gradually! Every year as a child grows up we need to relinquish more control and provide more self-determination. Some parents make the mistake of consistently allowing just a little bit less of it than each stage requires, and the child grows up feeling constantly restricted and bossed. This can generate tantrums, defiance and rebellion in some hardier children, and low self-esteem and lack of assertion in more gentle children. Therefore it pays to indulge any particular child with as much control over his life that is safely possible, beginning with the youngest toddlerhood. He or she will surely thrive and gain many skills with such freedom, and you will prevent many problems, as many parents nowadays make the mistake of over-control.

“He should know better than that at his age!”

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Another common Parenting mistake is to expect just a little too much maturity from a child than his particular age warrants, and as a consequence to criticize, reprimand and pressure him to behave more maturely. We must remember that children are completely children until they’re 18, and should be expected to often behave very immaturely. Maturity is like a wave, it flows up and down. Sometimes a 9-year old can behave quite maturely, and then at other times it is quite normal for him to temporarily regress and behave like a much younger child. To out adult eyes, almost everything they do seems childish, and we often find ourselves wishing our children would just grow up already. However criticizing immaturity in children in any form is very unwise and terribly damages their self-esteem; it shames them for their very natural, healthy impulses. Appreciate the beauty of their childishness, it won’t last forever!

The primacy of emotions.

Emotional health is critical for everyone, but it is the most commonly overlooked and neglected need that children have! The secret is, to teach a child conscious awareness of his emotional life. That means allowing him to accept, process and even celebrate every feeling he or she ever has, for the important part of his developing self that it represents. Many emotional disorders are caused when a child is taught to repress, ignore, or disrespect his emotions. Feelings are the lifeblood of any person’s mental and even physical health, and they must flow freely through the control center of his conscious mind. We must give a child constant labels for his feelings, reflecting back to him their emotional occurrences in the interpersonal venue, “Oh, that makes you angry!” “Ooh, you’re feeling frustrated!” “Yay, that makes you happy!”

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The Power of Happiness

Remember, as I have written about in my blog, childhood is a microcosm of the rest adult life. To the extent that we bring a child happiness, kindness, pleasantness, positive experiences, a warm Parent-Child Relationship, awareness of emotional life and self-determination in his youth, he will experience happiness and success for the rest of his life. But criticism, shame, negativity, disapproval, over-control and conflict, even with the best intentions, will only generate a lifetime of serious problems.

Please be advised that almost my entire blog is actually a recipe for how to prevent emotional illness in children.

Feel free to peruse it at your leisure. The principles written here represent a Parenting ideal, and I don’t expect anyone to fulfill them perfectly. Even if you can only implement a small portion, you will experience great benefit. So have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.

If you are struggling with how to prevent emotional and behavioral disorders in children, and feel I may be the right therapist for Parenting guidance or Play Therapy, feel free to chat with me in the chat box, or call directly at 646-681-1707 for a complementary 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!