“Is my child’s behavior typical?” is a question that is often asked when families have concerns about behavior or emotions. A mental health professional can help determine if behaviors and emotions are typical or if the child may need extra support. Emotional and behavioral difficulties can be a typical part of growing up, but based on intensity, frequency, and duration, these difficulties may be outside of the expected range. Figuring out what is typical or not can depend on a number of factors.
Common sources of emotional difficulty include academics, friendships, changes at home, scholarships, school transition, exams, sports, and college admission. Some children face these challenges and overcome them with a bit of support. Brief feelings of fear, worthlessness, inadequacy, indecision, anger, and sadness are natural responses to stressful times and situations. When faced with several stressors at once, or when the magnitude of the stressor increases, the resulting unpleasant emotions may be overwhelming and hard to control. Some children will require a bit of time and support and will continue relatively unscathed. Others may not be able to overcome these stressors without extra supports.
Children and teens, like adults, show their feelings in different ways or may even not show them at all. Some are more likely to show their emotions outwardly or externalize. They may be quick to anger, seem moody, argumentative, or break rules. Other children are more likely to direct their emotions inward, or internalize. Internalization can include having negative thoughts about yourself related to ability, body image, worth, or likeability. Children and teens who internalize emotions may meet external expectations such as going to school, and may even seem to excel at everything despite their internal emotional struggles. Internalization and externalization can occur simultaneously and are not mutually exclusive.
If negative emotions are not managed healthfully, they may lead to more challenges. Young children may isolate, struggle with making and keeping friends, refuse school, avoid trying new things, or seem argumentative. Older children may have behaviors listed above and may also engage in externalizing behaviors that are risky like using drugs, being unsafe in sexual practices, or breaking rules and laws. Internalization may be observed outwardly as isolation, difficulty in making new friends, adherence to rigid routines, self-injury, food control, unhealthy emotional or sexual relationships, and risk taking. Learning how to express these feelings healthfully can help manage unpleasant thoughts and feelings and increase the likelihood of making healthier decisions in the future.
It is important to know when to get help. Overt signs that indicate it is time to seek professional input include self-injury, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, drastic changes in body weight not related to typical development, law or rule breaking, and participating in risky behaviors. Other signs to seek professional input include difficulty with regulating emotions such as unexpected crying, refusal to discuss certain topics, being quick to anger, having emotional outbursts, and negative thoughts or comments about self.