Negative Emotions in Children

Anxiety, Confidence, Depression, Frightened, Frustration, Hopelessness, Mood Swings, School Phobia, Self-Esteem, Withdrawn

Self-doubt and lack of confidence holds more children back than any other factor. A child can be sent to the best school available but they won’t be happy and achieve unless they feel confident in their own abilities. Self-esteem is the foundation of a child’s wellbeing and confidence and the key to success as an adult. At all ages, how you feel about yourself affects how you act.

Children with healthy self-esteem and self-confidence learn more, achieve more, have more friends, are less likely to be alienated and are generally happier than those with low levels of confidence. Self-esteem is affected by a child’s experiences and new perceptions so is likely to fluctuate as a child grows.

Children who know their strengths and weaknesses and feel good about themselves tend to have an easier time handling conflicts and resisting negative pressures. They smile more readily and enjoy life. In contrast, children with low self-esteem can find challenges to be sources of major anxiety and frustration. Those who think poorly of themselves have a hard time finding solutions to problems. If given to self-critical thoughts such as "I'm no good" or "I can't do anything right," they may become passive, withdrawn or depressed. Faced with a new challenge, their immediate response might be "I can't."

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Children with low self-esteem may not want to try new things and may speak negatively about themselves: "I'm stupid," "I'll never learn how to do this," or "What's the point? Nobody cares about me anyway." They may exhibit a low tolerance for frustration, giving up easily or waiting for somebody else to take over. They tend to be overly critical of and easily disappointed in themselves.

A child with low self-esteem may:

  • Have a negative image of themselves and may feel bad, ugly, unlikeable or stupid
  • Lack confidence
  • Find it hard to make and keep friendships and may feel victimised by others
  • Tend to avoid new things and find change hard
  • Can't deal well with failure
  • Tend to put themselves down and might say things like "I’m stupid" or "I can't do that" (before they have tried)
  • Are not proud of what they achieve and always think they could have done better.
  • Are constantly comparing themselves to their peers in a negative way

The charity, Young Minds, reports:

Anxiety

  • 3.3%or about 290,000 children and young people have an anxiety disorder
  • 2.2% or about 96,000 children have an anxiety disorder
  • 4.4% or about 195,000 young people have an anxiety disorder

Depression

  • 0.9% or nearly 80,000 children and young people are seriously depressed.
  • 0.2% or about 8,700 aged 5-10 year-olds are seriously depressed.
  • 1.4% or about 62,000 aged 11-16 year-olds are seriously depressed.

Conduct Disorders

  • 5.8% or just over 510,000 children and young people have a conduct disorder
  • 4.9% or nearly 215,000 children have a conduct disorder
  • 6.6% or just over 290,000 young people have a conduct disorder
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Depression in children can be difficult to spot. Childhood depression is different from the normal "blues" and everyday emotions that occur as a child develops. Just because a child seems sad does not necessarily mean they have significant depression. If the sadness becomes persistent or if disruptive behaviour that interferes with normal social activities, interests, schoolwork or family life develops, it may indicate that they have a depressive illness. Keep in mind that while depression is a serious condition, it is also a treatable one.

The primary symptoms of depression revolve around sadness, a feeling of hopelessness and mood swings. Signs and symptoms of depression in children include:

  • Irritability or anger
  • Continuous feelings of sadness, hopelessness
  • Mood swings
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased sensitivity to rejection
  • Changes in appetite - either increased or decreased
  • Changes in sleep - sleeplessness or excessive sleep
  • Vocal outbursts or crying
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Physical complaints (such as stomach-aches, headaches) that do not respond to treatment
  • Reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Impaired thinking or concentration
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Not all children have all of these symptoms. In fact, most will display different symptoms at different times and in different settings. Some children may continue to function reasonably well in a structured environment, most with significant depression will suffer a noticeable change in social activities, loss of interest in school and poor academic performance or a change in appearance.

School phobia, school avoidance and school refusal are terms that describe an anxiety disorder in children who have an irrational, persistent fear of going to school. Their behaviour is different from children who are truant and express no apprehension about missing school. Children who have school avoidance want to be in close contact with their parent, whereas truants do not. School phobic children are often insecure, sensitive and do not know how to cope with their emotions. They appear anxious and may become physically ill at the thought of attending school.

Most children object to going to school at one time or another. However, a school phobic child often misses many days for vague reasons. Parents should be concerned if their child appears irrationally anxious, depressed, scared, and/or regularly says that he or she feels too sick to attend class.

When it comes to being frightened, everybody is afraid of something. Some children don't like the dark, others hate nightmares and scary movies and then there are those who want to run away from mean dogs, snakes and creepy crawly spiders. Whilst experiencing fear is stressful to children and parents alike, it should not be minimised. A part of normal development, being afraid is a sign that they are gaining awareness of the world and trying to make sense of it. However, it's a hard balance but telling your child they shouldn't be scared will only upset them more, but if they can see a parent’s confidence, that will help them start to believe—on a deep, nonverbal level—that there's nothing to fear.

Sometimes, a physical response will help when your child is beyond words. Most parents know this instinctively. If your child is terrified and panicking, you automatically comfort them physically - you pick them up, hold them tight, maybe rock them or pat their back.

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Physical comfort is more effective at diffusing panic because it counteracts the way that fear affects a child's body. The mind-body connection is so powerful, emotions can be changed by stopping the body from reacting to those emotions. For example, holding a child's hands and warming them to bring the blood back to their hands. This will cause their heart rate and breathing to slow down, because their body will recognise that the need for flight-or-fight is gone.

Once a child is out of the panic zone of fear, physical activities can help them grow more calm and reset their mental state. For example:

  • Rhythmic, steady motion like rocking in a chair, swinging in a hammock, or bouncing on a trampoline helps release tension and calms their mind.
  • Physical exertion like running or doing jumping jacks can help relaxation.
  • Calm, rhythmic activities like pouring sand or doing yoga poses help self-regulation.

To sum up:

1 - Understand the child’s fear
2 - Take the fear seriously
3 - Talk to the child
4 - Do not ignore the fear
5 - Do not make fun of the child’s fear
6 - Give the right message – lead by example and be brave
7 - Do not force the child to do something they are scared of

Above all, make it clear that you will always be there to protect your child and that they know they are loved.

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