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Emotional Problems in Childhood

Sad little boy holding his head in his hands.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 26 Aug 2022
Published 02 Mar 2022

What Are Feelings Issues in Childhood?

Feelings issues in childhood are difficulties with your child’s emotions, self-esteem, or overall sense of well-being. Emotional challenges in childhood indicate a child is struggling with their mental health, wellness, or coping skills. These struggles can occur throughout different phases of life and may or may not cause long-term distress.

Families vary greatly on the amount of time they spend talking about feelings. It is extremely valuable to your child’s well-being to have conversations about emotions early and often. 

“You can do everything right in communicating and parenting your child, and some children still may experience emotional challenges. Sometimes feelings become too big to manage and have a major impact on your child’s life.”

A child’s ability, behavior, and development can all impact emotions. Anxiety, withdrawal, irritability, depressive thoughts, and mood swings can all be ‘organic,’ which means they originate from chemical differences in the child’s brain.

All children experience some level of sadness and anxiety in life. When these symptoms take over and impact day-to-day functioning, it is important to intervene. In the articles that follow, you will learn about emotional wellness and how to foster it in your developing child. These articles include topics like meltdowns, mood swings, cognitive distortions, and self-esteem.

Common signs that your child may be experiencing emotional distress

  • Your teenager who spends all day in their room
  • Your child who lacks interest in activities that used to be fun
  • Your child who shows a sudden decline in school performance
  • Your child who has extreme tantrums and expresses constant feelings of sadness and frustration
  • Your teenager who says “I hate my life” regularly
  • Your child with unusual and pervasive fears
  • Your child or teen who has a hard time making friends or maintaining close relationships

Your child’s feelings are important, from the first time they can express them to you through adulthood. Indeed recent research has shown that developmental trauma can impact a child’s ability to feel alive, believe in their worthiness, and connect to others. Developmental trauma is often the result of a child’s difficulties feeling safe to express their feelings openly with parents or family members [1].

If these symptoms cause difficulty for your child more days than not, you are wise to be concerned. There is a difference between mild and more significant symptoms. Some children have a higher level of negative emotionality or are more sensitive just in their genetic makeup. The struggles in relationships, day-to-day happiness, and overall success in life may lead these symptoms to get in the way. 

The most common emotional challenges in children and teens are depression and anxiety

Depression: is marked by a depressed mood or lack of pleasure in activities your child used to enjoy. Irritability may be obvious in children and teens, while a depressed mood may be harder to see. To be diagnosed with depression, a child must exhibit one of these symptoms and 4-6 other symptoms, which may include restlessness, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, suicidal thoughts, changes in sleep patterns, or changes in appetite. The number and severity of symptoms impact the severity of the diagnosis.

Anxiety: is marked by feelings of worry more days than not about several different topics/experiences/things. Anxiety must interfere with day-to-day functioning. Other symptoms include restlessness, avoiding experiences out of fear, changes in sleep or appetite, attention difficulties. Several specific anxiety disorders include phobias, separation anxiety, and social anxiety.

Researchers believe that there is a continuum between depression and anxiety

Anxious symptoms now and then can be very manageable and even adaptive. Some level of stress or anxiety may motivate your child. For example, “I’m worried about that math test!” can lead to “I’m going to study.” However, if anxiety symptoms go unchecked, a child does not develop coping strategies or an outlet for stress and worry. Then, depressive symptoms may develop. 

Anxiety and depression can certainly exist together, and depression is marked by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that can make it hard to enjoy life. Persistent irritability may be seen in children who are depressed. A number of children, teenagers, and adults struggle with anxiety and depression. The good news is symptoms can get better with a mix of coping strategies, therapy, and sometimes medical treatment.

Considering the information provided in the individual feeling articles may help you determine whether emotional symptoms, such as worry and sadness, interfere with your child’s day-to-day life. It may be important to consider whether your concern will require more support for your child from a professional like a doctor, psychologist or counselor.

Types of Emotional Symptoms in Childhood

Child emotional challenges can be broken down more specifically in some cases. In the articles that follow, we will review the following types of feeling issues in more detail:

  • Depression: pervasive sadness, lack of motivation, numbness, and hopelessness that interfere with functioning
  • General Anxiety: feelings of worry that interfere with day to day functioning
  • Bullying: targeted harmful behavior by someone more powerful than the victim
  • Phobias: extreme fears that lead to avoidance and impact daily life
  • Attachment: challenges related to primary caregiving relationships, impacted by trauma, loss of caregiver, extreme stress early in life. Impacts how a child forms trusting relationships with others
  • Cognitive Distortions: errors in thinking that often goes with depression or anxiety, the most common are black and white thinking or catastrophizing, always seeing things in extreme or seeing the negative and jumping to the worst conclusion
  • Compulsions: acts that must be performed in response to pervasive thoughts or obsessions that interfere with day-to-day life. The acts are not rational or helpful but must be performed to help anxiety dissipate
  • Meltdowns: challenges with big emotional shifts from happy to angry in a moment, easily overwhelmed, and tend to have big emotional reactions that do not fit with the situation (may cry for hours over a poor grade). Often goes with depression or mood challenges.
  • Self-Esteem: self-worth that a child feels, higher self-esteem leads children to try new things and not be afraid to fail, low self-esteem leads to feelings of sadness, of being unworthy, children are less likely to put themselves out there. Can stem from perceived failures in the past
  • Social Anxiety: intense feelings of anxiety around social or performance situations. Leads a child to avoid social settings, school or settings in which they will be performing (a concert or soccer game)
  • Family problems: instability, trauma, loss, or changes within the family that impact communication and lead to a toxic environment for all family members
  • Mood swings: a mood that goes from 0-to-60 in a second, feels like your child is unpredictable. You don’t know what will set them off, so you feel like you are walking on eggshells. The next moment they may be very happy with no warning
  • Perseverating: sticky thoughts on a certain sad or negative topic or situation. Not being able to let something go and move on to something else
  • Self-injury: harming oneself to escape numbing pain or for a sensory response in the body
  • Somatization: feeling physically ill in response to feelings of anxiety or depression

Significant Symptoms of Emotional Challenges in Childhood

Anxiety is the most common emotional diagnosis in childhood. Here are some symptoms of anxiety in childhood. 

  • Excessive worrying: often asks questions about “what if…” 
  • Extreme fears: has a fear of burglars, kidnappers, or things that go bump in the night that is severe and impacts life
  • Worry about family: is excessively concerned about something bad happening to parents or siblings
  • Questioning and self-doubt: wondering, ‘What if they don’t like me?’
  • Spends a lot of time worrying: worrying takes time away from fun or school-related tasks
  • Cannot let things go: always ‘sweating the small stuff’
  • Irritability: children with anxiety may seem irritated at times instead of just nervous
  • Perfectionism: often seem to be trying to be perfect, not okay with making mistakes, craves control
  • Physical symptoms of nervousness: reports feeling butterflies in their stomach, racing heart, restlessness, trouble sleeping, chest pain, or muscle aches
  • Frequent illness or physical symptoms: like headaches or stomach aches

Depression follows anxiety and is particularly common for teenagers. Children can definitely be depressed as well. Here are some symptoms of depression.

  • Low mood: Experiencing a severe case of the blues
  • Frequent crying: Crying for no reason or excessively crying over something small
  • Anhedonia: Displaying sadness that impacts day-to-day functioning and pleasure in life
  • Withdrawal: Seeming withdrawn and not engaging in activities or with friends and family
  • Sleep changes: Sleeping all the time or not much at all
  • Diet changes: Eating too much or hardly eating anything
  • Social withdrawal: Not interacting as much with peers anymore
  • Looks sad: Always seeming on the edge of tears
  • Super sensitive: Crying when asked to follow directions or rules that seem pretty normal
  • Anger or irritability: Children who are depressed or anxious may appear more angry or irritable, may have a harsh temper, and may seem to overreact to small things that may emotionally overwhelm them

Causes of Emotional Challenges in Childhood

Low serotonin: Depression is a diagnosis that includes pervasive sadness or loss of interest in activities your child used to enjoy. Low serotonin levels in the brain can cause depression, and these symptoms can be inherited through genetic predisposition. Situational variables can also impact depression.

Traumatic events: A child may become depressed if they experience loss, changes at home, traumatic events, or feel like a failure because of learning challenges or low self-esteem. If depression runs in your extended family, there is a greater likelihood that your child may suffer from depression. Take heed of the symptoms, and seek help.

Mild trauma experiences (trauma with a small ‘t’): ‘small t traumas’ are seemingly small negative experiences that happen in childhood. A child’s emotional well-being can be affected even with a more common distressing experience, such as family strife, school change, loss of a pet, or peer drama. If your child seems sad or anxious, it will be important to get curious about what could be happening in their experience. Often, small t traumas cause significant and ongoing stress that can lead to poor coping mechanisms and persistent emotional problems. In this case, trauma treatment is required to help your child develop improved skills.

Significant trauma experiences (trauma with a capital ‘T’): ‘big T traumas’ are events that cause a significant threat to a child’s safety or sense of self-worth. These traumas include experiencing domestic violence, witnessing the death of a loved one, extreme bullying, or a sudden change in caregivers. It is very common for children to have significant emotional issues after experiencing traumatic events. Care for children with these traumatic experiences must be provided by experienced clinicians who are experts in trauma-informed care.

Environmental factors: You may have heard ‘anxiety is readily contagious.’ Being in situations marked by uncertainty or unpredictability, being surrounded by anxious people, or having a parent who has very anxious reactions can cause anxiety in a child. 

High-pressure environments: Highly stressful sports, academics, and other activities can lead to increased anxiety. A combination of genes and environment can increase anxiety in a child. If your child is in a highly stressful or competitive school, sport or activity, keep an eye on how they are managing this experience emotionally

Other diagnoses or challenges: Children with learning disabilities may find that time in the classroom is stressful. Children with autism may struggle with social interaction. These stresses and struggles increase the chances that a child will feel anxious. Anxiety is commonly diagnosed in combination with autism, learning challenges, and ADHD.

Temperament traits and genetics: An interesting factor to consider is whether you consider yourself and your child to be an optimist or a pessimist. Psychology research has confirmed for decades that optimists find more well-being and success. In his seminal work, The Optimistic Child, Dr. Seligman describes,

“But pessimism is an entrenched habit of mind that has sweeping and disastrous consequences: depressed mood, resignation, underachievement, and even unexpectedly poor physical health. Pessimism is not shaken in the natural course of life’s ups and downs.

Rather, it hardens with each setback and soon becomes self-fulfilling. America is in the midst of an epidemic of pessimism and is suffering its most serious consequence, depression.” [5] p.7

Pessimism: The Optimistic Child has some good suggestions if your child is a pessimist [5]. For now, there are a few basic ideas for ways to foster more optimism in your child. It is important to see how your child attributes negative events in life.People who see events as permanent are pessimistic; those who see events as changeable have a more optimistic outlook.

People who see negative events as global and pervasive have more of a pessimistic view; those who see negative events as specific are generally of the optimistic view.

Finally, those who see negative events as internal and general personality traits (“I am such a slob”) are more pessimistic, and those who see events as internal and behavioral (“This room is a mess, but I can clean it up”) tend to be more optimistic.

When bad things happen in your child’s life, help them to see the glass as half full by looking at these events as changeable (not permanent), specific (not global), and behavioral (not personality traits). [5], p.64

In addition to working with your child to find a more optimistic viewpoint, there are a lot of actions you can take to help your child.

What to Do About Emotional Challenges in Childhood

What to do about anxiety

Do acknowledge that you sometimes feel worried yourself. Talk through some worries, like “Traffic was awful, and I was worried I’d be late for work.” Talk about how you handle that worry, noting that everyone makes mistakes and that no one is perfect.

Do share that even though you were worried, it all worked out okay. Explain that most of the things we worry about never come to fruition.

Don’t talk about worries like “I’m worried the local crime spree will hit our neighborhood next.”

Don’t turn on the local news at night if your child tends to worry. Be honest and clear when she asks you a question, but keep in mind that children do not need to be privy to everything. Try to bring up positive things happening in your community. Make statements about safety and security.

Do remember good self-care and get treatment for your own anxiety. The healthier you are, the healthier your child will be.

Many great resources are available for parents and kids to read when children struggle with anxiety [1]. Parents are also advised to read about ‘Taming the Worry Monster’ [3] and learn more about anxiety in ‘The Worried Child’ [4].

What to do about depression

If you are concerned about sadness or depression, there is a lot you can do to help your child.

Spend time together. Read together, watch movies, and visit the zoo or the park. Just take time to be together. Be careful of your tone and your own irritability around your children.

Make plans. The making of plans can be a safeguard against depression. As hard as it is sometimes to get some interest going, there has to be something your child doesn’t mind doing. Plan a party, a road trip, a day at the mall to pick out some new shoes, or a concert that is coming to town. Having something to look forward to can build hope in your child.

Listen to your child. When your child shares symptoms or negative self-statements like “I hate myself,” be sure you hear them. Never say, “no, you don’t.” Instead, say, “I hear that you feel really awful right now. I’m here to help. Together we can try to make it better.”

Get your child involved. Guide them to take part in pleasant events that they used to enjoy. If your child used to like dance class, is she interested in trying a new class? If your child used to play guitar, does he want to get involved in a local music school or band?

Actively support your child in identity formation. Older children and teenagers tend to be caught in the throes of identity development. Embrace this process.

It’s your child’s chance to really decide what they stand for and what is important to them. Help your child truly explore who they are by doing the following     :

  • making a collage
  • taking an art or pottery class
  • picking up a new instrument
  • identifying places they would like to visit
  • checking out some books of interest at the library

Build healthier habits. Patiently work with your child on eating, sleeping, exercise, and social patterns. Healthy habits help foster resilience and overcome depression symptoms.

Seek help from a professional. Consider a psychologist or counselor for therapy support and if symptoms are significant. Cognitive Behavior Therapy is a best practice treatment for depression and is often very effective. Expert in CBT, Aaron Beck describes the development of the CBT approach,

“Upon questioning his other depressed patients, Dr. Beck began to notice that all of them experienced “automatic” negative thoughts such as these and that this second stream of negative thoughts was tied to their emotions. He began to help them identify, evaluate, and respond to their unrealistic and maladaptive thinking and when they did so, they rapidly improved.” [2], Chapter 1

Beck also cites over 500 studies verifying the efficacy of the CBT treatment approach. This news is promising for individuals with depression, as it is often true that therapy alone can treat depression. Individuals gain a sense of hope and control over their lives and begin to heal their maladaptive patterns of thinking and behavior. In some cases, a psychiatrist or pediatrician should be consulted, who may recommend dietary changes or medication.

Keep an ear out for suicidal thoughts. If your child talks a lot about death and dying, there may be serious safety concerns. In that case, seek help right away. You can call 911 or go to the emergency room if your concerns are significant. Also, consider reaching out to the school counselor or school psychologist. 

Do NOT: Ignore warning signs. If your child is sad or melancholic, they may be thinking of suicide. Giving away possessions, withdrawing from sports or extracurricular activities, suicide notes, and statements like, “well, I won’t be there tomorrow” are all serious signs. Membership in a marginalized group may also increase risk. These groups might include children with disabilities, children of racial or ethnic minority groups, children who are questioning gender or sexual orientation, and children who have experienced a recent loss or loss of social status.

Do NOT: Lose hope. Many children become depressed and may contemplate suicide. Remember that even one person providing consistent support can be a strong resilience factor for kids. Remind your child to think in terms of specific situations rather than in terms of global factors.

For example, ‘this was just a bad test. I am generally doing okay in math.’ Think in terms of temporary rather than permanent factors. ‘I had a tough week with that one friend. Generally, I have nice friends and feel okay most days.’

Do NOT: Allow access to lethal means. If your child is contemplating suicide, it is exceedingly important to make your house safe. Remove or safely secure all weapons or unsafe items. If you have guns in your home, make certain that they are locked up and that your child cannot access them. 

When to Seek Help for Emotional Challenges in Childhood

When things you have tried on your own are not working, do not hesitate to get professional help for your child and your family.

If you are concerned about your child, seeking a cognitive behavioral therapist may be your first step to getting help. This type of therapist meets one-on-one with your child. Together, they work on emotional awareness and coping skills through communication and play. 

The therapist will develop a treatment plan. They will look at negative thoughts and beliefs with your child. Your child will learn to recognize anxiety and depression symptoms. They will practice different strategies and tactics (like relaxation techniques). 

Learning emotional regulation skills can decrease their anxiety and improve mood and hopefulness. You can be part of the plan too. You can help your child practice the skills they have learned in therapy and apply them to daily life. 

If you have worries about your child’s safety or immediate risk to themselves, think your child has a plan for self-harm or suicide, or have worries about their safety or anyone else’s, call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room. You or your child may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Phone Number at 1-800-273-8255.

Professional Resources for Emotional Challenges

A professional or mental health expert might help you better understand these depression or anxiety symptoms and causes. 

Generalized Anxiety is a diagnosis that applies to those who have a lot of worries across different settings and situations. 

Depression is a diagnosis that includes low mood, lack of interest in life, irritable behavior, and changes to daily living skills. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy may be the way to go if this is a problem for your child. A medical doctor or psychiatrist may also be helpful to consult.

A mental health professional can also help rule out other kinds of anxiety that are more specific. Examples include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Panic Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, Specific Phobia, or Social Phobia. 

They can determine whether your child is depressed or has mood symptoms related more to a Bipolar presentation. This information might help you decide on the best course of treatment to better your child’s life.

Consultation with a Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment, to look at symptoms in a mental health context. A testing psychologist can rule out other diagnoses that occur in childhood and teen years like oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, an eating disorder, or much less commonly bipolar disorder, a conduct disorder or a psychotic disorder.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapist or Play Therapist: to treat anxiety or depression symptoms with cognitive-behavioral or play therapy approaches, depending on the age and needs of each child

School Psychologist: to treat anxiety or depression in the school setting; to provide a social group; to look at ways to adjust the setting to lessen anxiety

Child Psychiatrist: to consider medications if your therapist recommends them. A child psychiatrist can also be a good professional to consult with about your child’s health

Resources for Emotional Challenges in Childhood

[1] Heller, Ph.D., Laurence & Aline LaPierre, Ph.D. (2012) Healing developmental trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship

[2] Judith S. Beck & Aaron T. Beck (1995).  Cognitive Distortions Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Second Edition, Basics and Beyond 

[3] The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression 

[4] Beck institute: www.beckinstitute.org

[5] Seligman, Martin, Ph.D. (1995). The Optimistic Child: A revolutionary program that safeguards children against depression and builds lifelong resilience. Houghton Mifflin, New York.

[6] Huebner, D.  What to do when you grumble too much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Negativity. 

[7] Yamada, Kobi & Besom, Mae (2016). What Do You Do With A Problem? Compendium, Inc. 

Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center (July 2017)

Suicide Prevention Resources for Teens

Sendi, Kevin (2017). Signs of Depression in Children 

Huebner, D. (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety.

Peters, D.B. (2013). From worrier to warrior: A guide to conquering your fears. Great Potential Press: Tucson, AZ

Culbert, Timothy &  Kajander, Rebecca. (2007) Be the Boss of Your Stress (Be The Boss Of Your Body®).

Foxman (2003). Recognizing anxiety in children and helping them heal.

Books for kids on anxiety 

Meiners, Cheri J. (2003). When I Feel Afraid (Learning to Get Along).

Green, Andi (2011) Don’t Feed The WorryBug.

Freeland PhD, Claire A. B. and Toner PhD, Jacqueline B. (2016). What to do When You Feel Too Shy: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Social Anxiety

Bender, Janet M (2004). Tyler Tames the Testing Tiger.

Zelinger, Laurie & Zelinger, Jordan (2014). Please explain anxiety to me

Helsley, Donalisa (2012). The worry glasses: Overcoming anxiety. 

Cook, Julia (2012). Wilma jean and the worry machine. 

Cook, Julia (2012) Wilma jean and the worry machine: Activity and idea book. 

Books for kids on perfectionism

McCumbee, Stephie (2014). Priscilla & the perfect storm. 

McCumbee, Stephie (2014). Priscilla & the perfect storm activity guide: Classroom ideas for teaching the skills of staying calm and dealing with frustration…

Satlzberg, Barney (2010) Beautiful oops! 

Pett, Mark & Rubinstein, Gary (2011). The girl who never made mistakes

McDonnell, Patrick (2014). A perfectly messed up story. 

Mulcahy, William (2016). Zach makes mistakes.

 

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