The thoughts and reasoning of a child often seem abstract and challenging to the average adult. Children are frequently worried about whether others will like them or not, and must deal with constantly changing situations as they grow older.
During this time, many children are attending school for the first time, meeting new friends, and exploring new settings. Young children must learn to adjust to these new situations effectively in order to build the social and cognitive skills they will use for the rest of their lives.
While many children will adjust to these situations without much trouble, others will encounter barriers to this growth. Some children react to new situations with anxiety, or display problems in conduct that negatively affect their social and academic lives. For more information see Childhood Developmental Psychology.
To ensure these children learn proper life skills that will carry them through childhood, child psychologists work with children and parents through therapeutic and educational techniques shown to improve behavior and encourage mental growth.
Problems in Childhood
For a child first attending school, learning to share, meeting others, and learning new skills might seem like daunting tasks. Many children express fear and anxiety at how others view them, while other children don't know how to effectively interact with their peers.
Conduct disorders, aggression, and anxiety are all major problems some children exhibit in childhood. Depending on the issue, children might cry and scream when separated from parents, or might lash out at other students at school when asked to play.
Child psychologists working with these children focus on increasing their social skills, decreasing conduct problems, and relieving anxiety.
All children misbehave from time to time, but conduct becomes a serious concern when it frequently and consistently affects social, family, and academic life. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, these behaviors, marked by persistent delinquent behaviors, are classified as a conduct disorder.
Children with conduct disorder have difficulty following rules and behaving in socially acceptable ways. For example, children with conduct disorder typically show aggression toward people and animals, destroy property, frequently lie, and might run away from home.
Because there are many contributing factors leading to conduct disorder, a child psychologist must gain a thorough understanding of the child's life and parental relationships. Often, conduct disorder is the result of the parents unintentionally reinforcing bad behavior.
According to Alan E. Kazdin in “Evidence-based Psychotherapies for Children and Adolescents,” antisocial behavior is marked by aggressive acts, poor social integration, and ineffective parenting techniques. The chapter Problem-Solving Skills Training and Parent Management Training for Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder notes that psychologists address these behavioral problems through a combined treatment that includes the child and his or her parents.
Therapies for Conduct Problems
When building problem-solving skills, psychologists first analyze the child's problem areas. Often, children with conduct disorder act aggressively toward other children and must learn more constructive ways of expressing their frustration.
To help the children explore new ways of reacting, psychologists teach them problem-solving steps.
Problem Solving Steps:
- What am I supposed to do?
- I need to figure out what to do.
- What would happen if I did that?
- I need to make a choice.
- I need to find out how I did.
After teaching the child about the steps, the psychologist helps the child to apply them to real situations through role-playing exercises. For example, consider a young girl teased by a classmate. The girl is frustrated because she wants the teasing to stop, but doesn't know how to effectively do this without resorting to aggression, so she hits the teaser.
The psychologist would present a similar situation to the child, and ask her to use the steps to devise a more constructive method of stopping the teasing. The girl would ask herself, “What am I supposed to do?” She would self-talk with the response, “I'm supposed to solve this problem without hitting.” The child would then brainstorm alternative options by telling herself, “I need to figure out what to do.”
The child might decide that the best course of action would be walking away, and talking with the teacher about the teasing. This way, the teasing stops, the teacher understands why the girl is frustrated, and the child resolves a problem without aggression. To help reinforce this behavior, the psychologist gives the child tokens at the beginning of the therapy session. Depending on the child's choices and answers to the problem-solving questions, the psychologist might subtract or add tokens.
At the end of each session, the child buys prizes with the tokens, solidifying the effectiveness of good problem-solving skills. While the psychologist works with the child to develop more effective social and problem-solving skills, the parents receive parent management training.
Parent management training focuses on helping parents implement more effective parenting techniques. Psychologists work with parents on positive reinforcement, punishments, attending, and ignoring. Through parent management training, parents learn which behaviors to ignore and which to give attention to. For example, in role-playing exercises, the psychologist plays the child and whines to the parents about wanting a toy or stuffed animal.
The psychologist continues to whine while the parents ignore the whining, remaining firm and not giving in. Eventually, the psychologist playing the child changes his or her tone, and the parent responds, even praising the “child” for quickly calming down. This form of attending and ignoring signals to children expected behaviors.
The psychologist would also moderate a family meeting between the parents and children where they discuss expectations of behavior and conduct. They would also discuss implementing a token system at home similar to the system used during the child's problem-solving skills training.
While many children might react aggressively to new social situations, others find difficulty simply participating in them at all. These children, affected by anxiety, must learn effective ways of interacting with others, overcoming fears, and developing effective social skills.
Anxiety in Children
In a room full of 30 children, it's estimated that five or six meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. Whether their anxiety stems from nervousness about meeting others, or dread of speaking in front of class, childhood anxiety has far-reaching effects that hinder a child's ability to learn and develop socially.
To help these children learn how to manage their anxiety, psychologists often work with them through play therapy.
Symptoms of Anxiety in Children
- worry about things before they happen
- fear of embarrassment
- low self-esteem
- panic or tantrums when leaving parents
- extreme worries about sleeping away from home
- refusing to go to school
- frequent stomachaches or other physical complaints
- intense fears about parent health
Source: The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology
In the book “Short-term Play Therapy for Children,” authors Susan M. Knell and Meena Dasari write how psychologists use a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and play therapy to treat children with anxiety and phobias. They go on to say that clinical anxiety differs from normal anxiety in three ways: intensity, impairment, and lack of flexibility.
For example, Knell and Dasari write about a child's first day of kindergarten. While it's normal for a child to feel anxious and even sad when leaving his or her parents, a child who throws a tantrum, can't stop crying, complains of stomachaches, and displays a greater amount of anxiety than other children might have clinical anxiety. Knell and Dasari say that cognitive behavioral therapy's basis of providing children information about their anxiety symptoms, and introducing them to methods that decrease that anxiety make it a good fit to employ with play therapy.
In the case of the child who feels anxious about separating from parents when at school, Knell and Dasari talk about using puppets to help the child understand the problem and possible solutions. For instance, the psychologists provided a child named Cara, with art supplies, dolls, and other toys to help her describe her separation anxiety. During play, the psychologist introduced Cara to a puppet who also felt anxiety when leaving home. Observing the puppet, Cara mentioned that she thought the puppet “worried too much,” and began to mimic positive statements made by the therapist that the puppet would have a good time at school, and it's mother would be back soon.
Cara inadvertently began to provide a list of coping techniques for the puppet to use when it felt anxious, and began to mimic them herself, eventually using the coping techniques to overcome her anxiety at school. Using puppets to explain abstract topics like anxiety and other mental disorders to children is an effective way to instigate positive change in children. Play is considered a child's language, and how a child plays often gives insight into their thoughts and troubles.
Child psychology is a growing field focused on helping children defeat negative thoughts and disorders that affect their development.
If you're interested in a career helping these children, request information from psychology schools.
Helping Children of Divorce
When thinking of starting a family, images might spring to mind of a white picket fence, kids, and a dog running around, with a happy couple watching it all.
Unfortunately, this picturesque situation is becoming more rare, with as many as 43% of first marriages ending in divorce, according to statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics. But as couples struggle to find common ground and work through a divorce, sometimes it's the children who suffer most.
For children who have grown up with the support of both parents, a broken home is a confusing and frightening situation. Children might not understand the reasons for the divorce, or might blame themselves.
According to “Anxiety and Depression in Young Children of Divorce,” published in The Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, divorce prompts economical, social, and psychological loss in a family.
The article, written by Lynn A Hoyt, notes that loss of a parent in the household means adjusted relationships, disrupted routines, and loss of traditions as a child must contemplate splitting time between both parents.
And this disruption sometimes leads to increased psychological distress, according to the article. To investigate these disturbances, researchers compared second and third graders from intact families, to those from divorced families.
The researchers found that children of divorce displayed more characteristics of anxiety and depression, such as feelings of loss, isolation, and rejection. They also appeared more immobilized by sadness, and felt responsibility for the breakup of their parents.
For these children, group intervention is a helpful way of explaining the complications of divorce, as well as introducing the children to a group of peers going through similar difficulties.
The article “Effect of a Divorce Group Intervention for Elementary School Children,” published in Psychology In the Schools, indicates that a therapist working with a group of children can teach them about divorce along with coping techniques.
In the article, researchers Carol A. Gwynn and others measured depression, anxiety, and feelings about divorce in 60 school children. By splitting the children into groups, and talking to them about their feelings and concerns about divorce, the researchers successfully reduced depression and anxiety in the children. Discussions focused on informing the children about the divorce process, and how it will affect their relationships with their parents.
Through treatment and open communication, children feel more reassured about divorce, and are better prepared to face adjustment complications.