It's easier to measure the physical well-being of a child than his psychological or emotional well-being. There are weight and height charts for us parents to gauge how our child fare compared to the average child. There are milestones of development indicating that our child is more or less on track. These are generally objective measurements. We know our infant is doing fine as long as he grows into a toddler who can walk and talk, and is gaining weight and height.
But the gauge for emotional, psychological or mental well-being is not so clear-cut. For example, some of us might be concerned when our seven-year-old son treats an animal cruelly, wondering whether there are some underlying psychological or emotional factors; while others might think it's just a passing phase. How do you tell whether a child is having depression? How much does childhood trauma impact a person in the adult years?
How does one get out of the dark shadows of an unhappy childhood? The answers to these questions may not be simple nor straightforward. But awareness of the problem is the first step towards overcoming it. Depression can be treated with therapy or medication and childhood trauma need not necessarily affect a person for life. When one is aware of and acknowledges the problem, healing is always possible.
Question 1: My seven-year-old son has just recently begun demonstrating some rather cruel behaviour toward animals. We've caught him doing some pretty awful things to neighbourhood dogs and cats. Of course we punished him, but I wonder if there is anything to be more concerned about here?
Answer: Cruelty to animals is often a symptom of serious psychological dysfunction to be evaluated by a professional. Children who do such things are not typically just going through a phase. It should be seen as warning sign of possible emotional problems that could be rather persistent. It also appears to be associated with sexual abuse in childhood.
I don't want to alarm you or overstate the case, but adults committed to a life of violent crime were often cruel to animals in their childhood. This fact was verified in a study by the American Humane Association. I suggest that you take your son to a psychologist or other behavioural specialist who can evaluate his mental health. And by all means, do not tolerate unkindness to animals.
Question 2: My daughter is five years old, and she has been having some very scary nightmares lately. She wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, but she can't tell us what frightened her. The next morning, she doesn't seem to recall the dream, but something is obviously troubling her. My wife and I are worried that she may be developing psychological problems that are being expressed in these terrible dreams. Is that possible?
Answer: I think your daughter is all right. She is probably having a "night terror" rather than a nightmare. Let me describe the difference between the two. Nightmares occur primarily in what is known as "stage-three" sleep and are often remembered if the dreamer awakens. They are sometimes linked to emotional distress during waking hours and may play a role in "working through" those disturbing experiences. A person can often talk about a nightmare and recount its scary story.
Night terrors, by contrast, usually occur in "stage-four" sleep, which is even deeper and further from consciousness. In this physiological state, the body mechanisms are reduced to a minimum to sustain life. Breathing, heart rate, metabolism, and every other function go into super-low motion. Some children experience strange dreams during this phase, which cause them to sit up and scream in terror.
However, when adults come to the child's rescue, they find that the child is unresponsive. The eyes are open, but they boy or girl is obviously not awake. And the next morning, there is no memory of what was so deeply disturbing.
This appears to be what you are describing with reference to your daughter. You'll be encouraged to know that there seems to be no connection between night terrors and psychological stress. It is not predictive of any known health problems or emotional disruption. Nor do we know what causes them.
The good news is that your little girl is apparently fine. The bad news is that you may have to deal for a time with her midnight terrors that drag you from your own stage-four sleep.
Question 3: Our school psychologist said she thinks our son is suffering from childhood depression. My goodness! The kid is only nine years old. Is it reasonable that this could be his problem?
Answer: We used to believe that depression was exclusively an adult problem, but that understanding is changing. Now we're seeing signs of serious despondency in children as young as five years old.
Symptoms of depression in an elementary school child may include general lethargy, a lack of interest in things that used to excite him or her, sleep disturbances, chewed fingernails, loss of appetite, and violent emotional outbursts. Other common reactions are stomach complaints and low tolerance for frustration of any kind.
If depression is a problem for your child, it is only symptomatic of something else that is bothering him or her. Help him or her verbalise feelings. Try to anticipate the explanation for sadness, and lead the youngster into conversations that provide an opportunity to ventilate. Make yourself available to listen, without judging or belittling the feelings expressed. Simply being understood is soothing for children and adults alike.
If the symptoms are severe or if they last more than two weeks. I urge you to take the advice of the school psychologist or seek professional help for your son. Prolonged depression can be destructive for human beings of any age and is especially dangerous to children.
Question 4: You have recommended for many years that parents take their preteens away from home for what you called a "Preparing for Adolescence" weekend during which they talk about physical and emotional changes about to occur. I'm interested in your comment that kids want this information before they become teenagers, but they won't want to talk about it after puberty Do their attitudes really change that much overnight?
Answer: As a matter of fact, they do. A study of 1,023 children between ten and thirteen showed that the number who felt uncomfortable talking to their parents about sexuality nearly doubled after puberty occurred. Prior to that, they were open to instruction and guidance at home. Ninety-three percent of those aged ten to twelve felt loved by their parents "all the time," said Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist at Harvard University.
He said, "I think parents may be surprised that children of this age are saying, "We want to be close to you. We need you and we're still afraid. We need the sense of safety and security that you supply."
The study showed, however, that attitudes changed dramatically when the children reached the eighth grade. Those who had been open to advice the year before were suddenly unwilling to talk to their parents. The window of accessibility had closed.
The moral of the story? Invest a little time in the months before puberty to get your children ready for the stresses of adolescence. The effort will pay big dividends.
This article was written by Focus on the Family Malaysia and the Questions and Answers are extracted from "Complete Family and Marriage Home Reference Guide" by Dr. James Dobson with permission.
Focus on the Family 90-second commentaries is aired over TRAXX FM at 7.30 am Monday to Friday.