How to recognise emotional difficulties in children

All of the parents we talked to in making this site told us about how important it was to them to have open communication with their children and how hard they work to try and facilitate this. However children can sometimes struggle to talk to the people who are closest to them, perhaps because they do not want to worry them or upset them or because they are trying to be ‘grown up’ and to cope on their own.

Fortunately most children can find a range of ways of letting adults know that something doesn’t feel right for them. Mental health professionals look for a range of ‘symptoms’ to try to understand when children have a difficulty of some kind. These can be symptoms that are more outward behaviour in, such as anger, aggression, loud disruptive behaviour, challenging behaviour etc. Research suggests that these kind of symptoms are over represented in boys. The less outward symptoms can be seen as the absence of more normal behaviour, such as being overly quiet, withdrawn, uncommunicative, anxious, depressed, not mixing with friends, not eating, self harming and so on. Generally girls tend to use these kinds of symptoms to express distress more, but all of these symptoms can be relevant to emotional functioning in both boys and girls.

Any unusual behaviour that lasts more than a couple of days or very unusual behaviour should be taken seriously. Children have limited resources with which to communicate distress or confusion, and will often chose means that do not make sense to the adults around them. This is especially so for primary school children who often do not have the level of language or skills to communicate more complex experiences or feelings.