The Child with Emotional Problems

Are you worried about a child with emotional problems?

A range of behaviors and emotional responses signify emotional concerns in children. These include externalizing behaviors, like frequent temper tantrums and aggressive, acting out behaviors.

Emotional problems in children may also include internalizing behaviors, such as extreme shyness, passivity and withdrawal.

Emotional Development in Children

It is helpful to remember that we all experience a range of emotions and feelings. Children, as well as adults, experience both positive and negative emotions. Anger, for example, is not wrong or bad but a normal human emotion.

It is how we handle our emotions that leads to problems, not the emotions themselves.

In addition, emotions play a crucial role in motivating and organizing behavior throughout the life span. Infants exhibit emotions from birth, including contentment, interest (staring at objects) and distress. As babies develop and grow their emotions become more varied and distinct. These include emotions such as joy, anger and fear, as well as secondary emotions like embarrassment, empathy, pride, shame and guilt.

Although emotions like anger and fear are biologically programmed, the socio-cultural environment and the child's relationships also shape emotional development.

Children who handle emotions well do better at home and at school. Good emotional intelligence involves being in tune with and understanding your emotions, managing your emotions (e.g. impulse control) and recognizing emotions in others.

In addition, research indicates that a good understanding of emotions, and the ability to express them appropriately, contributes to popularity in children (Harris, 2000).

When Things Go Wrong

"Emotional control, particularly controlling anger and aggressiveness, are the most common emotional problems faced by today’s children."(Shapiro, 1997).

The child with emotional problems may experience difficulty regulating his emotions. Unless this concern is addressed the risk increases that the child will develop child behavior problems or child disorders.

Emotional Regulation includes the ability to initiate, maintain and alter emotional responses. The child with emotional problems has difficulty with emotional regulation, or managing and expressing emotions in an appropriate manner. For example, the child with emotional problems is often overwhelmed by his or her emotions and has difficulty expressing or dealing with them. This can lead to difficult child behavior.

In addition, children who have difficulty controlling their emotions may show greater expression of anger and aggression (Dahl, 1999).

Other children may withdraw and shut down or block the expression of their emotions. They may lack affect and appear passive and sad. The child with emotional problems, who internalizes his or her distress, may seem anxious, fearful, withdrawn and timid or depressed.

View our case study and learn more about a child who internalizes her distress and who also exhibits symptoms of child anxiety and depression.

The child with emotional problems may also lack confidence and suffer from low self esteem.

Children who have difficulty regulating their emotions are at risk for developing a range of child disorders. These include internalizing disorders like anxiety and depression.

Or a child with emotional problems may exhibit externalizing disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder. When the child with emotional problems externalizes distress he or she may act out in an angry, aggressive manner.

Emotions become problems for children when the child has difficulty regulating his or her emotions. This, in turn, interferes with optimum child development in crucial developmental areas, including the social, behavioral and academic.

Are you worried about a child with emotional problems? Does the child seem anxious and upset or sad and withdrawn? Or does the child act out in an angry and aggressive manner?

Help the Child With Emotional Problems.

The following suggestions can help you help the child with emotional problems. Use these suggestions to help the child learn how to regulate and manage his emotions.

Remember-emotions are not bad, they just are. Children need help to understand and cope with their feelings, and to understand that their emotions are normal.

Review the suggestions below: try those that apply to your situation.

  • Be a good role model. Pay attention to your own emotions and model the appropriate expression of these.

  • Accept and acknowledge the feelings of your children.

  • Encourage children to pay attention to and think about their feelings.

  • Encourage children to acknowledge and express their emotions. Make sure the child feels comfortable about doing so. You can increase the child’s level of comfort by saying something like, "That makes sense to me." or "I can understand that." or "Others feel that way too." Or “You felt sad/happy or angry." Never say; "You shouldn't feel that way." or "You don’t feel that way."

  • To encourage the healthy expression of emotions provide the child with a "feeling vocabulary." Make a chart or list of common emotions. Include both negative and positive emotions. Each member of the family could choose an emotion and describe a time when they felt that emotion. Then encourage the child to describe how they handled that emotion. If they had problems with the regulation or management of that emotion, encourage them to think of an alternate response. For example, if they were angry at a sibling and hit or verbally abuse that sibling, encourage the child to think about and apply a more appropriate response to anger.

  • Teach children problem solving, conflict resolution and assertiveness skills. These techniques can provide the child with strategies to regulate and manage his emotions.

  • The child with emotional problems may feel stressed and upset. To help a child manage and regulate his emotions in a healthy and positive manner, it can also help to enhance the child's self-esteem and to reduce stress. You can also teach the child how to relax and cope with stress.

Are worried about a child with emotional problems? A psychological assessment can help you to help the child with emotional problems.

Resources Used in this Article

  1. Dhal, R.E.(1999). The consequences of insufficient sleep for adolescents: Links between sleep and emotional regulation. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 354-359.

  2. Harris, P.L.(2000). Understanding emotion. In M.Lewis and J.M.Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (2nd ed.) New York: Guilford.

  3. O’Connor, D.S. (1996). I Can Be Me: A Helping Book for Children from Troubled Families. Charlotte, NC: KIDSRIGHTS.(Click on the Alcoholic Parents button in the top left corner to learn more about this book and how it can help)

  4. Shapiro, L.E. (1997). How to raise a child with a high EQ. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Dr. O'Connor runs her practice, in Toronto (Yonge & St.Clair.)

She can be reached at 416-592-0838.

You can also contact Dr. O'Connor by email.

Dr. O'Connor is the author of I Can Be Me-A Helping Book for Children of Alcoholic Parents.