Common Psychological Problems in Toddlers and Pre-schoolers

“My child is too aggressive for his age!” “My child often shows a lot of tempers and throws tantrums.” “My child is too quiet and avoids other people.” “My child engages in inappropriate behavior, especially in front of others.” These are common complaints coming from parents of toddlers and preschoolers. But beware; these might be ominous signs of some underlying psychological issue.

Our role as a parent/teacher is to first remove the stigma that is associated with psychological disorders from our minds. Having a psychological issue doesn’t mean that your child is impaired for a lifetime; however, it means that your child needs help to settle down and achieve success.

Signs to be watchful for in Children –

● Being sad or anxious and least interested in engaging in age-appropriate activities for more than two weeks consistently 

 ● Being violent towards self or planning to harm self

 ● Showing overwhelming behaviour for no reason 

 ● Involving in a fight with others that may hurt others badly 

 ● Having loss of appetite or throwing up 

 ● Showing drastic changes in behaviour and unusual mood swings 

● Being unable to concentrate on a task, activity or play and seem restless.

If the above signs are observed in a child repeatedly for two weeks then it is a red flag and it is advisable to consult a Mental Health Professional (MHP).

Common Problems –

Anxiety and depression –

Let us look at a classic case. Sara complains that her stomach aches every day just before going to school. After a few hours, she is alright. Again the next day as school time approaches her stomach starts aching again. This happens consistently. Her parents are worried about her education due to her frequent absenteeism. Is Sara acting a lie to avoid school? Maybe she is, but the root cause of this behaviour in Sara’s case is anxiety. Toddlers and pre-schoolers usually have anxiety about places (like school), things, animals, insects, etc. They may also be anxious about getting separated from parents or caregivers. Anxiety can make children irritable, restless, fearful and angry. It can result in trouble in sleeping and may also cause physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, nausea, fatigue, etc.

On the other hand, depression is a very serious term that is often used very casually. Feeling sad or hopeless occasionally is a part of childhood and it must not be labelled as depression. Depression is when a toddler or pre-schooler –

● Feels sad or uninterested most of the time.

 ● Does not enjoy age-appropriate fun activities like play.

 ● Feels tired or lacks enthusiasm most of the time.

 ● Changes sleep as well as eating patterns often E.g. waking up in the middle of the night.

 ● Is unable or feels challenging to pay attention 

 ● Often shows self-harming behavior E.g. playing purposely with sharp objects.

Behavior and conduct disorders –

Throwing tantrums occasionally is the usual behavior among toddlers or pre-schoolers. However persistently being angry, not following the rules set by the adults and breaking them often, annoying others, or getting annoyed frequently, blaming others for their own mistakes are all symptoms of behavior disorders in children. Such children might seem difficult to be handled for parents/caregivers, teachers, and other adults.

Conduct disorders are quite serious than behavior disorders. It is when the child violates serious rules, e.g. running away from school premises. The children are aggressive and often engage in fighting with peers and being cruel to animals. At a very young age too, they lie, steal from others, and intentionally harm others or others' property, e.g. breaking other child’s crayons on purpose. Children with conduct disorder usually do not seem guilty of their own behavior.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) –

Children with ADHD have a problem with focusing for a long time. Their attention span is usually very small. Children with ADHD can also be impulsive or hyperactive, this means they show unwanted extra energy and sometimes can be unmanageable. These behaviors interrupt their learning as well as day to day activities. To get a closer look at ADHD, its causes, symptoms, and management, there are certified courses available for enthusiastic parents/caregivers, teachers, or any interested person.

Obsessive-Compulsive disorder –

Let us see an example. Sara owns a plush doll which she sleeps with every day. If someday the plush doll goes for cleaning in the laundry, Sara becomes restless. She refuses to sleep without the doll and shows irritable behavior like continuous crying and throwing toys until she gets her doll back. Sara is obsessed with the doll and is compulsive about sleeping with it daily. Children usually have some or the other habit which if disturbed might make them a little restless, but it is an OCD only if the restlessness exceeds socially-expected levels.

Obsessions and compulsions refer to urges for certain routines which if not completed may make the child uncomfortable. Toddlers or pre-schoolers think that if they don’t follow a certain routine then something bad may happen to them or their family. This thought of something bad happening has no association with the routine that they follow and it is only in the mind of the child.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – 

A child’s traumatic experience such as an accident, loss of a loved one, serious illness, witnessing a crime, natural or man-made disaster, being a victim of physical/sexual/emotional violence is followed by stress, anxiety, and fear. Children with PTSD are often upset, act helpless, and are easily startled. They might keep reliving the event over and over again in their minds during play or in sleep. They even avoid places or people associated with that event. 

For any of the above problems, it is advisable to seek help from a Mental Health Professional (MHP) for the child at the earliest. The symptoms of the above conditions may worsen over a period of time if left untreated and can cause a serious threat to the child’s personality as an adult. Assistance from a Mental Health Professional on time can save the condition from getting aggravated and ensure the better mental health of the child. 

Remember, just like you see the doctor when your child is having a cough/cold; in the same way, it is highly recommended to seek help from an MHP when a child shows any of the psychological issues.

Thu Dec 24, 2020

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