Supporting Children with Behavioral Challenges

Rejeana Haynes
Rejeana Haynes

As a mental health professional who has treated children for more than 30 years, my heart always skips a beat when parents ask, “Is my baby hopeless?”

Let me reassure you: Every child has potential and promise. Every child can grow, learn and improve. Sometimes you just need an outside ally, a compassionate expert, to help you and your family face the tough challenges.

When kids misbehave, the cause may not be strong will, but rather a lack of skill. Tantrums or the “silent treatment” may demonstrate confusion about how to react more than a clear choice to be stubborn and overreact.

When a child acts out, the pattern of inappropriate behavior is often used to hide deeper feelings of pain, fear or loneliness. Many youngsters exhibit all the classic bad behaviors that stem from extreme trauma, including abuse, neglect, violence or family addiction. But we know that compassion and best-practice interventions can unleash the unbelievable resiliency found in every child.

The journey should start and end with the entire family. Children need a support system around them so they can embrace change. Think of the same approach you would take when a child is diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. Everyone—parents, siblings, extended family and even teachers and coaches—learn about what foods maintain balance and what to do if the child’s blood sugar tanks.

Children who struggle with an emotional disturbance need that same level of support. When a child acts out, it’s often a symptom of their brain’s inability to self-regulate. Getting healthy mentally may mean relying on medication, just as insulin makes it possible to live with diabetes. Or, it may call for healthier lifestyles and habits, such as more nutritionally sound diets, exercise and stress-reduction techniques. And it may require teaching the entire family new skills on how to react to one another in healthier, more constructive ways.

Very often, it’s a combination of all three strategies that make a lasting difference.

Family involvement in no way implies fault. Parents in particular often feel like they failed when a child has a chronic mental health disorder. Let’s throw out the blame game. Shame and guilt weigh us down in a self-defeating pattern at a time when we most need the freedom to adapt and evolve.

Likewise, don’t let your feelings about the behavior infect your feelings about the child. When your child acts up all the time, it’s easy to slip into the idea that he or she is just a bad kid, instead of a good kid forced to resort to bad behavior. Work to find a way that they can be the happy, healthy, loving child they want to be.

Don’t give up on your kids, or kids under your care, no matter how desperate things may seem. There are more solutions than you think. If you’re not sure where to start, read about 15 behavioral health topics for which families commonly seek help. 

Rejeana Haynes is vice president of clinical operations for St. Vincent Family Center, a mental health and behavioral treatment center for children.

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