By Beth Proudfoot, LMFT
I got a call here at Child & Family Counseling Group recently from a parent who was concerned about her 5-year-old. She wanted to know how to figure out whether her daughter’s behavior was indicative of a problem vs. “just a phase” that would go away with maturity. This is such an important question! We know that the brain remains plastic and changeable throughout our lifetimes, but that at age six the critical window for laying the foundation for a lot healthy functioning starts to close. My bias: when in doubt, don’t “wait and see.” Get help before that window shuts!
Even for young children with significant neurological problems affecting motor control or speech and language, early intervention can have a miraculous effect. Social and emotional development varies significantly, so it’s easier to take a “wait and see” attitude. However, it’s also important in these areas to recognize the danger signs and intervene as early as possible.
In the first year, babies should be noticeably attached to one primary caregiver. At twelve months, babies with healthy attachments cry when their primary caregiver leaves, and then are soothed by him or her when they come back. They readily engage in eye contact and nonverbal communication with caregivers in a playful and relaxed give and take. When upset, they know how to communicate their need to be held and respond positively to rocking and holding and soft voices. Babies and toddlers who act as if they don’t care when their caregivers leave them, who arch away when held by their mom or dad, who avoid eye contact, or who have a kind of frantic spinning energy are in the category of “get help now.”
Experienced pediatricians, preschool teachers, and daycare providers can be valuable resources if you’re uncertain whether or not your young child is developing normally. Often, they have worked with hundreds of children in the same age range. If they express concern, don’t wait. Early interventions can make a significant impact with toddlers and preschoolers who are behind or outside the norm in their social and emotional development. Red flags include constantly high or low energy levels, delays in speech, severe or long-lasting aggression and/or defiance, extreme sensitivity to touch, noise, or strange situations, extreme separation anxiety or indifference to caregivers.
Part of the challenge for those who work with small children is to tease out which symptoms need to be addressed and how. In very young children, a tummy ache could be caused by anything from anxiety to allergies and emotional problems can be cured by anything from a small change in discipline to a big change in family dynamics. My advice to parents is to be persistent. Start with your pediatrician and your child’s caregiver or teacher, and then branch out to other professionals until your questions are answered and your child’s needs are met. The best time to do this is…today.