For years, the mom of a nine-year-old boy struggled to understand his behavior. He was prone to meltdowns and genuinely appeared to dislike school, no matter the classroom. She described his meltdowns as “overwhelming,” sharing that he would throw himself on ground and scream and cry. Teachers, administrators, and school counselors suggested better boundaries, an earlier bedtime, and more rules at home. In essence, they intimated that it was a parenting problem. When she finally enlisted help outside of school, however, she received news that explained a lot: Her son suffered from sensory processing disorder and separation anxiety disorder.
Sometimes young children exhibit behaviors that baffle parents. Behavioral changes are a very normal part of child development, and it’s natural for parents to assume certain behaviors are simply a phase or part of growing up. It’s important to remember that all behavior is a form of communication. The toddler who digs in her heels and refuses to eat is asserting her independence and perhaps trying to get a new food to the table. A child who bursts into tears at the classroom door each morning for a few days experiences developmentally appropriate separation anxiety. Some behaviors, on the other hand, can be a symptom of a larger issue that needs to be addressed.
Watch for these behavioral symptoms that might require proper assessment and intervention:
Prolonged tantrums or meltdowns that appear to be related to touch, sound, smell, or other senses.
Getting dressed, bathing, and eating are just a small sampling of everyday activities that can trigger big reactions in children with sensory processing issues. Screaming, tears, tantrums, crashing into walls, and freezing up are all examples of behaviors that can occur when children struggle to integrate information from the senses.
Try this: Keep a trigger tracker for two weeks to write down time and length of meltdown, environmental considerations, and other notable information to establish a pattern.
Angry outbursts, defiance, and physical aggression.
For kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), tasks that are repetitive or require a lot of focus can be both challenging and boring. These tasks also have a tendency to pull kids away from something more pleasurable, such as chatting with a peer or playing a video game. Kids with ADHD receive a fair amount of negative feedback about their behavior, and this can be overwhelming and trigger feelings of frustration. Tantrums, defiance, and aggression can be used as avoidance strategies when frustration mounts.
Try this: Kids with ADHD need more structure and specific instructions that other kids. They also need positive interactions. Encouraging positive choices and reminders (instead of constant redirects) can help break the cycle of negativity.
School refusal, physical complaints, frequent complaints that work is too hard, and acting out in the classroom.
For kids with learning differences, the school day can be both academically challenging and emotionally exhausting. Sometimes kids engage in defiant classroom behavior in an attempt to be removed from the classroom to avoid the work. Other times, kids complain of stomachaches, headaches, or other physical issues to avoid or get a moment of relief from the challenge of academics.
Try this: Meet with the classroom teacher to address your concerns and request an evaluation. With a proper diagnosis and classroom accommodations in place, your child will have a much more positive school experience and see an increase in self-esteem.
Avoidance behaviors, negative outbursts in school, low frustration tolerance, and frequent and intense tantrums.
When kids present as clingy and ask the same questions over and over again, parents worry about anxiety. When kids struggle to sleep alone or separate from parents, parents seek help for anxiety. But anxiety can actually wear many hats in childhood. Prolonged tantrums, for example, can be an indicator of profound anxiety. Avoiding school, sports, friends, and activities is another sign of anxiety in children. Overreacting to feedback, irritability, and outbursts are all symptoms of anxiety. More often than not, anxiety hides behind behaviors that are generally considered manipulative or defiant in nature.
Try this: If you notice a pattern of avoidance, irritability, and meltdowns coupled with sleep disturbance, physical complaints, and other behavioral changes, seek a consultation from a licensed mental health practitioner. Anxiety can interfere with school, friendships, and family relationships, but it is very treatable. With proper supports in place, your child can learn to manage and cope with symptoms of anxiety.
All children develop on their own timelines, and behavior does shift as kids grow. If a pattern of negative behavior emerges, however, it’s always best to seek assistance. The sooner you get help for your child, the better able your child will be to cope with his or her triggers.