We all want our children to grow up healthy, strong, smart and confident. These are lofty goals in the best of times, but for military families, they’re particularly hard to achieve. Between the frequent PCS moves, the potential for lengthy deployment, the difficulty maintaining long-term friendships, and other issues, military children are more likely than civilian children to develop mental health conditions, including emotional disorders.
What Are Emotional Disorders?
At its core, an emotional disorder is nothing more than an inability to correctly process emotions. It’s pretty common in children, as their brains are still developing, making connections, and forming new neural pathways. But children in the military have a heightened risk of forming the wrong connections and creating negative pathways.
Recognizing Emotional Disorders in Children
Mental illness and emotional disorders manifest themselves in many different ways. We’ll talk about a few of them below, but understand that these signs are not a definitive diagnosis. In fact, they may simply be part of the natural growth and development process. Only a trained professional can actually diagnose your child’s mental health condition. That said, keep your eye out for the following:
- Constant worry and stress that makes it difficult for your child to function normally (note that some anxiety is a normal part of childhood)
- An inability to communicate and interact with others normally
- Persistent feelings of sadness, isolation or extreme mood swings
- Overwhelming fear for no discernible reason
- Changes in behavior (drastic ones), including frequent fighting and uncontrollable anger
- Unexplained weight loss or gain
- Frequent headaches or stomachaches
- Signs of self-injury, such as cutting or burning
- Withdrawal from family and friends, as well as activities your child previously enjoyed
If you suspect your child is exhibiting one or more of the above symptoms and you suspect that he or she has an emotional disorder, your first step is to get a diagnosis from a licensed professional. You’ll find a wide range of assistance on your installation, including face-to-face non-medical counseling (so long as suicidal thoughts or actions aren’t part of the symptom range).
A therapist will interview your child and conduct tests to determine whether or not an emotional disorder is present. The therapist will then give you guidance on how best to help your child through this time. In some cases, he or she will prescribe medication or refer you to another mental health professional for that purpose. Many emotional disorders are temporary and can be alleviated with treatment, although not treating them could cause them to become permanent. There’s no shame in asking for help—especially when your child is concerned.
How to Help Your Child
Although getting professional help is probably the most important thing you can do, there are also a few other ways you can help your child:
- Talk It Out. In many instances, open communication between the child and parents can make a very real difference in his or her emotional state. Even younger children can benefit from talking about how they feel and why they feel that way. Don’t tell your child not to feel “that way,” because it sends a message that you think there’s something “wrong” with them.
- Make Changes. Many emotional disorders arise from specific situations in your child’s life. If you suspect that’s the case, try to identify the situation and attempt to change it in a way that removes (or lessens) the problem. Understand that military life is often very hard on children of all ages. Help them find activities where they can make friends and connections outside the family.
Updated by Armin Brott, June 2016