By Linda Kelly, MSW, RSW, TITC-CT
A young woman inspired a lot of discussion here at KMH because there truly was no straightforward answer to her question. We thought that it might help to share our views for other parents who are experiencing the same issues.
She explained that her 4-year-old daughter had been acting strangely whenever it was time to visit her dad at her grandfather’s house. This was out of character for her normally affectionate young daughter, but mom felt unsure about what to do since her daughter was not yet verbal enough to explain what was going on.
From the behaviours she was seeing, I agreed that she should be concerned and that she would be best to do a little more observation. Here’s what to watch for.
If a child exhibits fear around someone, meltdowns that are anxiety-based, disrupted sleep patterns, or clingy behaviour with trusted caregivers, do not ignore it.
Best case scenario, it’s a minor developmental phase where they need a bit more security, and they’ll learn to trust. They might just grow out of it.
Worst case scenario is that that they are being victimized.
This article is not meant to incite fear and paranoia, but instead to remind parents and caregivers that abuse happens ALL THE TIME. How we deal with it impacts a child for the rest of their lives.
Children aren’t born with an awareness of inherent rights. They become accustomed to what we teach them and that becomes the norm. How many of us had parents who went a little overboard with punishments, and we didn’t realize how extreme it was until we were much older?
In the case of abuse, children will likely react with fear or distress, but they may not understand that what is happening is outside the realm of normal. Many will not know to report inappropriate behaviours to someone who could help. Some simply don’t have the verbal skills to do so. Others, sadly, have been threatened and sworn to secrecy.
Keep an eye on how far the pendulum swings between “normal developmental phase” and “something is really wrong here.” As we always say, feelings are signals and we have to interpret them correctly to make the best possible decisions.
Behaviours Worth Investigating:
As with the mom above, you could be seeing some of these issues and feeling overwhelmed about what to do. First of all, breathe. The fact that you’re noticing their behaviours means that you’re doing a great job. Next, take the following steps.
Eliminate Obvious Danger. If a child touches a hot stove and then refuses to enter the kitchen altogether, you first want to make sure that the stove is off before helping them face their fears. If your child is distressed to be around a certain person, do not leave the child alone with that person.
Observe. Gather as much information as you can by observing their behaviour. Is it consistent or does it change based on their tiredness or hunger level? Consistent distress and fear is a sure sign that something is wrong.
Note Missed Cues
Children are expressive by nature. If they are expressing distress around a specific person, does that person respond appropriately and with sensitivity? Do they try to force the child to be affectionate against their will? Do they hold them when they clearly want to be put down, or tickle them when they are trying to get away? Ignoring these cues is a big red flag and could be contributing to the child’s sense of distress.
---Exceptions apply when parents are actively disciplining the child, since no kid can expect to be happy with that.
Does the person get angry with the child’s outbursts? Some impatience is understandable, but the thing you’re watching for here is if the person is putting their own needs before those of the child and if they are expressing themselves in a way that would lead to further issues (e.g., scaring or intimidating the child)
When children are upset, we must share our “calm” with them instead of taking on their distress.
Engage in Story-Based Play in a safe environment.
Using dolls, action figures, puppets, even different types of pencils that can symbolize the people in their lives, lead them in a story about the situation that bothered them. Often, they will end up showing you what scares them (maybe Grandpa reminds them of someone they saw on a scary show, or there might be something in the house that they are afraid of). You can then use the activity to role model positive problem solving techniques (e.g., the child tells mom that there is a monster under the bed, and both mom and child become monster-fighting superheroes who ban all scary things from the house together).
This allows the child to separate themselves emotionally from the event by viewing it as a story, and empowers them to solve the problem.
Whatever they do disclose, embrace it. Praise them for telling you. Never argue with them or make them doubt their version of the truth. Your reaction will influence how well they will trust others and have confidence in themselves as adults.
Trust Your Gut
You know your child. If you feel that there is a chance they could be vulnerable to victimization, take steps to prevent it. In some cases, contacting Child Welfare may be a necessary step in accessing more resources and a full assessment of the situation by a trained professional.
Check here periodically for updates from Kelly Mental Health staff.
Check out kellymagazine.ca for recent mental health articles and blog posts.
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