The development of healthy mental and emotional balance begins with your child’s secure attachment to you, which we considered in part one. As your child grows and develops, and as he achieves a certain measure of self-mastery and begins to spread his self-regulatory wings, you’ll likely begin to see a marked decrease in negative reactions to new, strange, or upsetting situations. This decrease will show up in each of the following areas:
Frequency: The number of negative reactions will lessen until they almost stop altogether as your child adjusts.
Duration: With each episode, your child’s negative reaction to the situation will get shorter until such reactions stop.
Intensity: Over time, the intensity, or “size” of the negative reaction, will diminish until it fits or matches the intensity of the situation, or disappears altogether.
If you see no decrease in the frequency, duration, and intensity of your child’s reactions over a period of time, it’s a warning sign that normal development may have stalled in some way. Just make sure you take into consideration your child’s personality traits and compare her to herself, not to other children. Bear in mind, too, that while children can often learn a new skill, response, or mode of behavior very quickly, this does not necessarily mean that they will remember to use that skill when it’s called for, or that they will have the maturity to understand when to use it without prompting.
What might hinder the natural development of your child’s mental and emotional regulation? Once again, the roots of the problem are found in a child’s early attachment to parents. If you see signs of dysfunction in this area, it would be wise to have your child checked out by a qualified professional as early as possible. Here are some signs that the normal attaching process has somehow been derailed:
- Your child is often emotionally disconnected from himself, from others, and from what’s going on around him. He avoids or seems indifferent to his caregiver or her presence or absence. He regularly seems to be off in his own world.
- She tends to keep people at a distance relationally. She avoids letting others get too close to her emotionally.
- He values success and power more than relationships and exhibits a need to win at all costs.
- She is overly dependent emotionally, clingy, or always fearful of being rejected or abandoned. Her feelings are easily hurt, and she thinks it’s always her fault.
- He is anxious, confused, uncertain of what to do, or constantly afraid of doing the wrong thing.
- She has a “push-pull” relational style: “Get away from me! Don’t leave me!”
- He lacks a strong sense of self. As a result, he sticks to himself, is often a loner, has few or poor peer relationships, and doesn’t play well with others.
Developmental Issues versus Mental Health Issues: What’s the Difference?
Knowing the difference between normal development and mental health issues can be difficult when your kids hit the teen years, because the normal adolescent experience can actually mimic the symptoms of serious mental illness. There are several reasons for this.
- Brain development. A teenager’s brain is not yet fully mature. On average, development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex is not complete until sometime in the mid-twenties. As a result, a great deal of adolescent behavior looks irrational (or semi-rational).
- Physical development. Like brains, individual bodies grow and develop at different rates. For example, physical problems of various kinds, visual difficulties, or problems with hearing can create frustration or depression.
- Hormonal issues. During puberty a child’s brain and body are awash in a flood tide of hormones. These hormones stimulate growth and regulate sexual development. Unfortunately, they can also create chemical imbalances in the brain and produce wildly fluctuating emotions. This is particularly true in the case of teenage girls. Moms who have experienced postpartum depression or who know what it’s like to feel out of sorts during their menstrual cycle can keep an eye out for similar symptoms in their growing daughters.
- Inability to regulate emotions. Kids are unable to regulate emotional ups and downs without another person’s help at least until their late teens. Sadness, withdrawal, malaise, or anxiety in an adolescent may simply mean that you need to ask questions and get more actively involved in your teen’s life. Remember, at this age your teen tends to view everything—a breakup with boyfriend, the loss of a family pet, or a tiff with a sibling—as a major crisis.
- Parental expectations. Finally, as parents we need to make sure we aren’t driving our children to despair by expecting too much of them. We need to allow each of our kids to grow at their own pace. Pushing them to excel in academics or sports or to develop at an accelerated rate will probably do more harm than good. Parental pride is fine in its proper place, but your child’s well-being needs to always be your number-one consideration.
Sorting It Out
Distinguishing between normal and abnormal during the growing stages of your child’s life can be a delicate business. Immaturity, disappointment, self-doubt, and a host of other normal adolescent afflictions can easily cloud the picture. But that doesn’t mean that parents can’t help their kids sort things out and come up with a workable plan for keeping the emotional boat upright and afloat. We most certainly can. It’s just a matter of staying aware and involved.