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How to Maximize Family Time? 13 Simple Ways You Can Try Immediately

How to Maximize Family Time? 13 Simple Ways You Can Try Immediately

Barbara Bush was speaking very wisely when she said the following about having a meaningful existence in life:

At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.

The struggle to strike a good balance between family time and work time is real. This struggle can leave many with deep feelings of anguish and guilt. Am I spending enough time with my kids so that they feel secure in our relationship? Is our family time meaningful and considered quality time?

The good news is that there are solutions and tips you can implement today to strike a good balance between work and family time. Below are these tips for you so you can maximize your family time:

1. Make family events a priority

If you are not a life saving surgeon and currently on-call, then your work can likely wait. Most of us aren’t in the business of life saving. That gives us some legitimate flexibility in our off-work time. You don’t need to be tied to work 24-7.

When your kid has a little league game on a week night, then don’t work late that night. Make your family events a priority. Get there so you can be present in your child’s life. In order to be a good parent, it means you need to be there.

If you are working all the time, you are missing out on the family events that you can’t replace. Kids grow up fast and they don’t get to repeat their childhood.

That little league play off game may be the only time they make it to play offs. Their piano recital may be more than just showing their level of skill, it is their time to shine and show their parents how hard they have worked so that their parents can be proud.

Being present at family events shows your spouse or partner and children that you care. Love is shown in actions. Make sure your actions are showing love, by showing up for holidays, birthdays, family nights, and the kid’s games and performances. These things matter.

Even if they act like it doesn’t matter (like most teens will act), know that it does in the long run. They will remember that you showed up time and time again, that you put family in front of work and you make family your top life priority by being present.

Quality time is a wonderful thing but it is difficult to achieve without having quantity time. Make sure that you are spending time with your family so that you can develop deep relationships that are meant to last a lifetime.

Those relationships will be even more important when life hits rough patches for any of your family. Death, job loss, moves, etc…they all have a huge impact on your lives and you want your family to be the ones you can count on. Developing relationships, as the kids grow up, is what will help each of you when your lives hit rough times.

2. Schedule it on the calendar

We put our work stuff on the calendar because it is important. But what about family time, family events and kid’s activities? If you aren’t putting those things on your calendar, you may want to ask yourself why not?

If you value your family, then the activities that involve your family should be on your weekly schedule. Put in those ball games, ballet recitals, family date nights, holiday parties, and more.

You need to make sure you have time for your family. If your calendar is getting filled up with work stuff every week, then plan ahead. Find out your kid’s activities’ schedules when they start, as most of us get a schedule for the semester or year when they begin practice. Then take that schedule and put the important games or performances on your calendar so that time slot can’t be taken in the future because of a work obligation.

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Making time for your family means making things a priority before they come up. Scheduling can be one of the biggest obstacles, so having things on the calendar well in advance should help you immensely.

3. Establish work boundaries

You need to be a team player at work, but you also need to be a team player for your family. Don’t allow your work to over-run your family time.

When you have family activities on the calendar, then be willing to speak up when you are asked to stay late for the third night in a row. Know your boundaries with your boss, so that you aren’t jeopardizing your job, but you also don’t want to minimize the value of your family and your time that you have scheduled.

This is why it becomes important to place the important activities on the calendar, so you know which nights are more important than others at a glance. If it’s not on the calendar, it becomes easy to forget until that date pops up.

Don’t allow your family to be trumped by your job when it doesn’t need to be that way.

4. Have a weekly scheduled no phone time

One of our good family friends is a CFO of the world’s largest property management companies. He is obviously a very busy guy. Yet he is purposeful about making family time on the weekends.

Every Saturday evening, he disconnects from his phone and does not reply to texts, emails, or phone calls (unless it is a true emergency). He does not reconnect with his phone and communications until Sunday evening, long after the kids have been tucked into bed. This allows for his focus to be devoted to his wife and children during those 24 hours.

He is present during the week as well, but he disconnects from his phone and other electronics for a full 24 hours once a week to dedicate his entire focus to his family.

What he does is a great example to all of us. What if we could dedicate 24 hours of the week to disconnect from our devices in order to reconnect with our families?

There are 52 weeks in the year. That would give us 52 days of true, 100% focus of what is most important to us, which is family.

We can work hard to provide for our families, but if we never connect, nor do we develop strong interpersonal connections, what is the point? Then our work and efforts are in vain.

Work hard for your family, but also play hard with them to make the time count.

5. Have purposeful family time

Make your time with family have purpose. If you are all at home, yet you are all in different rooms doing different activities, it doesn’t count as family time. The best kind of family time is when you are engaged with one another in an activity. This way meaningful discussions can take place.

Other options include side-by-side activities. Either help to create bonds and relationships within the family unit. The goal is time together, doing things together.

Being at the same place, but not together is not helpful to creating relationships. Therefore, if you go someplace outside the home, such as a museum or art gallery, make it a priority to stick together to experience things as a family.

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Below are suggested activities for you and your family to do together. Create variety to make things interesting and fresh for everyone. Schedule these activities on your calendar, so that work doesn’t come up and take you away from your family time together:

  • Play board games
  • Go hiking
  • Do family yoga
  • Go indoor rock climbing
  • Pick a family movie to watch together
  • Visit a state park
  • Visit a national park
  • Go to a museum
  • Go to an outdoor concert
  • Go to a play
  • Take an art class
  • Go to a make-your-own pottery studio
  • Get manicures or pedicures
  • Check out local events in your community
  • Go fishing
  • Play a backyard sport like softball or soccer
  • Attend church
  • Go swimming
  • Rent a boat
  • Go camping even if it’s in your own backyard
  • Go biking
  • Go to a beach
  • Take a scenic drive
  • Go to a park
  • Go on a picnic
  • Play lawn games like croquet or badminton
  • Go to an art gallery
  • Plan and cook a meal together
  • Make holidays and birthdays a celebration
  • Read books aloud (especially great for families with smaller children)
  • Complete craft and art projects (there are at least a million ideas on Pinterest)
  • Go to a fair or theme park
  • Attend a craft fair

6. Don’t sweat the small stuff

Many times in life, we allow the small stuff to get the best of us. We get upset about things that won’t matter a year from now, or for that matter, even a week from now.

If it doesn’t matter in the long run, then let it go. Some things are not worth getting upset about which in turn get the rest of the family upset. Usually if one parent is upset, it creates an upset in the entire family. Don’t let your time together as a family get upset by things that shouldn’t.

A bad day at work? Leave it at work, don’t bring it home. A fight with a friend? Forget about it for now, and commit to have a conversation with the friend after your family time. Your teen is not completing their chores? Let them know they will do it after family time, but don’t guilt them so that it ruins your family time.

If it isn’t something that must be dealt with immediately, then don’t allow it to interrupt your family time. Chances are the problem will still be there and in the same condition when you get back to it later. Deal with emergencies, but let other stuff slide and get to it later.

Make your time and focus intentional on the family, rather than extraneous junk that can be dealt with later.

7. Make kindness and forgiveness a policy

It becomes difficult to have quality family time if there is arguing, anger, hostility, and other negative emotions going on between family members.

If you have serious issues that impede on family time habitually, then it’s time to get some family counseling. If it’s bickering, lack of forgiveness, and/or general lack of kindness, then a policy needs to be established so that family time is a time for everyone to get along.

Meanness or lack or kindness will not be tolerated. The example begins with the parents. Teach your kids by talking about kindness, but also by being an example of kindness to your fellow family members.

If things start getting unkind, then have a key word that helps family members remember that they are supposed to be kind to one another and not to bicker, argue, name call, or be unkind. Our family’s key word is muskrat. You can think of your own word and perhaps make it funny to lighten the mood when undesirable behavior does arise.

8. Make sure time away from work is time off

Are you taking your work home with you every night? Are you playing catch up after hours? Are you still returning work calls and emails after work? If this is your daily habit, then you may need to access your situation.

Can you begin to wean yourself from bringing home work and doing work activities after work hours? If you can’t stop cold turkey because the panic that rises inside you is too overwhelming, you can begin to wean yourself from afterhours work. This means you find ways to cut these things more slowly from your evening routine, so that you are giving more time and priority to your family in the evening.

If you are working tirelessly in your job and it is not humanly possible to get it all done during a normal working day, maybe it’s time to talk to your boss. Make sure you have legitimate examples and a breakdown of how your time at work is spent, so that they can see your point of view. Present it in a way that they can step into your shoes and see things from your perspective.

Not all bosses will understand, but there are also laws surrounding work hours and wage. If you aren’t certain if your employer is violating wage and hour laws, but you think there is likely a problem, then you can contact the US Department of Labor, Division of Wage and Hour via their free hotline at 1-888-487-9243.

9. Use family meetings for deep discussions

When tough topics come up, like setting rules and dates for family time together, make it a family meeting at the dinner table. Sit together and discuss things, free of electronic distractions, so that you can all understand one another and the goals.

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When you say “family meeting time”, everyone should know that it’s time to gather around the dinner table for an important discussion. If you have never done this before, then you can call your first family meeting to discuss your plans to have weekly family time and come up with ideas together.

Our twins are only four years old and they are always included in the family meetings. These meetings can start at a young age, that way each family member knows that they are valued from a young age. Their opinion and inclusion in discussions is important, because they are part of the family, regardless of age.

10. Make the time enjoyable and not a punishment

Don’t ever use family time as a threat. Time together as a family should never be perceived as a punishment. If it is, your approach or the activities together are not right.

Find activities that everyone can enjoy to some extent. You will never find something everyone loves to do, but you can find activities that all will like to do. The goal is an enjoyable time together where you are bonding together through activities and interactions. The more face to face interactions the better. Games can be of great value because they require more immediate interaction.

Make your goal of family time to be enjoyable and fun, so that everyone looks forward to that time together. Include your children (especially the teens) in your discussion of how family time should be spent, so that you have an idea of what everyone finds enjoyable.

You will end up with great family memories because your family activities were a positive experience. You will also be forming bonds that will help strengthen family unity.

11. Be committed to regular family time

Making time for family shouldn’t just be reserved for birthdays and holidays. If those are your guidelines for defining family time, then you are missing out on the rest of the year.

Time with family should be a regular weekly commitment. If you want family ties and true family relationships, you need quantity time and not just quality time on the rare occasions.

Showing up for birthdays and holidays is simply not enough to make meaningful connections and deep relationships (ask any kid who has been in a divorced situation and only sees one parent on those special occasions). The relationships lack depth if everything is always on the surface level.

In order to develop relationships below the surface, time must be invested. Making a commitment to things like dinner as a family several nights a week can make a huge impact on family relationships in the long run. If you can’t all be home for dinner, think about other options that don’t take long periods of time, such as half hour family walks in the evening several days a week.

The time commitment isn’t huge, but doing it consistently is what makes an impact. You get to talk about what is happening to your kids throughout their week and not just highlights on the weekend when they may have forgotten about what happened during their week.

12. Family dinners are a wise investment of your time

If you can make one thing a priority in family time, it should be doing family dinners at least several times a week.

Michigan State University examined research studies about family dinners and found that kids from homes that did family dinners at least three times a week had better grades, were less likely to develop eating disorders, had better language development skills, and better health.[1] They also stated the following of importance:

Frequent family meals are associated with a lower risk of smoking, drinking and using drugs. Additional associations include lower incidence of depressive symptoms, suicidal thoughts and better grades in 11 to 18 year olds.

Dinner time not only helps form relationships and meaningful conversations during the week, but also has overall benefits that affect the development of children and teens.

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You have to eat meals anyway, so its something that won’t cost your family anything extra to do together. Don’t allow electronics to be a distraction at dinner time, keep them away from the dinner table to keep the attention on family conversations and interactions.

12. Put distractions aside

The biggest distractor from family time is the phone. If you have teens with smart phones, it becomes an easy distraction from family time, which means family relationships are being disrupted. The quality time needed to form meaningful relationships is non existent.

Make rules, for adults and minors to abide by when it comes to phones and other electronics. Make family time as distraction free as possible. They can check their email and texts after family time. If an emergency comes up, you will know it because the person will likely call repeatedly.

Everything else can wait until after family time. It likely will not affect your life, work, or social life if you have to pause your phone activities for a few hours. If you can have a basket in the house for everyone to place their phones during family time so that you all are completely distraction free, then you are truly winning!

Keep the devices away and you are likely keeping the distractions away, so that everyone can be present in mind and body during your family time together.

13. Make family time a judgement free zone

Life is hard enough. We get judgement from the rest of the world all day long. Time with family should be a safe haven from judgement.

Make a rule about passing judgement on one another when you are having family time. If there is a serious issue that needs addressing, call a family meeting to discuss the issue. Otherwise, let it be.

Let your family be themselves, warts and all, and let them know they are accepted and loved for just the way they are. Because isn’t that what family is supposed to be about?

At the end of your life

Friends tend to come and go, but the people who tend to stick the closest from birth to death are family. We don’t get to chose them, but we can make relationships stronger, closer, and more positive by implementing these above tips on creating positive family time together.

The bonds created when your children are small can last a lifetime. The key is making meaningful bonds and loving relationships that are built on positive experiences and quality time interacting together.

Time in the same home, yet never interacting makes you roommates. Doing activities together, having meaningful conversations, having quality weekly family times and doing life intertwined together makes you a family with bonds connecting you for a lifetime.

Kids go from zero to 18 quickly. If you are buried in your work, you may just miss out. Make family a priority today by choosing family time and getting it on everyone’s calendar right away.

Calling a family meeting is the best way to get the ball rolling. Don’t forget to ask your children what they would like to do for family time to get started on the right foot.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Michigan State University: The value of family meal time

More by this author

Dr. Magdalena Battles

A Doctor of Psychology with specialties include children, family relationships, domestic violence, and sexual assault

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Published on September 26, 2019

How to Help Your Child with Behavior Problems

How to Help Your Child with Behavior Problems

Before I talk about ways to help with child behavior problems, I want to share a story with you…

Little Suzy recently started Kindergarten. Within the first several days of school, the teacher noticed that Suzy was quite defiant when asked to follow instructions in the classroom. The teacher would ask the students to gather on the rug for circle time and Suzy would say no, and refuse to stop playing with toys in the corner of the classroom.

Suzy has been erupting at school and yelling at other children. The school contacted Suzy’s parents because a situation escalated at school this week and Suzy hit a classmate over the head with a Lacrosse stick while they were playing outside. The bystanders said it wasn’t an accident and that Suzy hit their classmate hard on the head several times with the stick because the classmate wouldn’t give Suzy the ball.

Her parents are at a loss. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know why Suzy is acting this way. They have difficulty at home getting her to follow directions. She seemed to not respect authority when they take her to church or anywhere where she is being supervised by other adults, the feedback that they receive is that Suzy doesn’t listen and refuses to follow instructions. She seemed to hear what they would say, but her response is always “no, I am not doing it.” Situations often escalate into Suzy having a temper tantrum.

It was also noted by her parents that Suzy has not made any friends during the first month of school. She was doing things to annoy and even bully other children. Instigating arguments and always trying to be right seemed to be her pattern of behavior. She lacked empathy toward her classmates and even blamed them for things that she did. For example, she wrote curse words on the blackboard and blamed another student. She fails to take responsibility for her negative behaviors.

The school referred Suzy to a child psychologist the second month of school based on the her behaviors at school including refusing to follow instructions from her teacher, yelling, bullying, not making any friends, and beating a classmate with a Lacrosse stick. The parents are hopeful that the psychologist can understand why Suzy is acting like this and that they can get her the help that she needs.

After the psychologist met with Suzy, her parents, and the teacher had some answers. The psychologist asked if the parents had ever heard of the term “Oppositional Defiant Disorder.” The parents said that they had not. The psychologist went on to explain that this disorder, abbreviated as ODD is defined by the presence of at least four of the following behaviors for at least 6 months and these behaviors are noticeably more severe than their peers’ behaviors:

  • Argues with adults
  • Often defies adult authority and rules
  • Deliberately annoys others
  • Blames others for their mistakes or behavior
  • Often loses their temper
  • Often exhibits anger, irritability, and/or hostility
  • Often bothered by others
  • Acts vindictive

The parents agreed with the psychologist that Suzy had more than four of these behaviors present. They said that the behaviors were present while in preschool as well and that they could see these problems increasing over the past year. They had hoped that a different teacher would be able to better reign in Suzy’s behavior. They felt that it was perhaps the preschool teacher that was too soft on Suzy. Now they realize that they have a real problem, since the behaviors have persisted for over a year and under the direction of a new teacher and school.

They commit to a plan to help Suzy. The psychologist refers the parents to a clinician who has parent training classes that will help them learn skills to handle the ODD. The child is entered into a therapy program that includes bio-feedback methods that teach the child emotional self-regulation.

One year later, the family is happy to report that Suzy is like a different child. She knows how to control her emotions. Her parents also know how to implement structure and discipline in their household which helps reinforce Suzy’s good behaviors. Suzy is now thriving in school and has friends. The early intervention for Suzy helped with this positive outcome, along with parents who were committed to working alongside their daughter to make the consistent changes they all needed to make to this happen.

Suzy’s case is just one example of a childhood behavioral disorder. There are several major behavioral and emotional disorders that can show up in childhood. It is important that parents have a general knowledge of these disorders and their symptoms, so they know when they need to seek professional help.

When in doubt, seek out the help of a mental health professional who specializes in childhood disorders, as they can assist in properly assessing your child. If after seeking out professional help you find that your child does not qualify for a diagnosis, the mental health professional can help provide referrals to help with the issues that your child is having. For example, your child may have issues with controlling their temper, but they don’t qualify for an ODD diagnosis. Parents can still be provided with information on parenting groups or trainings that can assist with learning how to handle this issue with their child. Their child could also be referred to play therapy, or another mode of therapy that can help the child learn to control their temper and process their emotions.

In this article, you will understand more about child behavior problems and what you can do to help children with behavioral disorders.

What are Some Behavioral Disorders?

The DSM is a diagnosing manual used by mental health professionals to assess behavioral and emotional disorders. The most common major behavioral and emotional disorders that can occur during childhood, which are defined and categorized by the DSM include:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Anxiety Disorder
  • Depression
  • Bipolar Bisorder

Below you find a brief description of each of these disorders. Having a general understanding of these disorders can help parents assess whether there is something wrong with their own child’s behavior.

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Symptoms of a Behavioral Disorder and Diagnosing

Diagnosing of a behavioral disorder requires a professional who is educated on the DSM. The DSM is the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”. This manual provides mental health professionals with guidelines and diagnosing criterion for every mental health disorder.

If you think that your child may be suffering from a behavioral disorder, please talk to their primary care doctor and ask for a referral to see a psychologist. A psychologist who specializes in diagnosing behavioral disorders will be most helpful in providing you with answers and directions for specific treatment methods.

If you can’t get a referral from your child’s doctor, don’t stop. You are your child’s best advocate. If you think that they have a legitimate issue, then be their advocate and find the help that they need from professionals. See a different doctor, or contact a psychologist directly and explain your situation.

There is help available, you have to be the advocate for your child and it begins by getting them appointments to see professionals who can best help your child.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Let me share another story with you… Dillon is a healthy boy with lots of energy, a cheerful attitude, and seems to be smart. He is now in the third grade and has started to have major issues at school. Increasingly, he is having problems focusing in class. He is always fidgeting with items from inside his desk. Pulling out pens to click continuously, to the annoyance of his teacher.

Dillon is always losing his assignments, bus pass, and backpack. His thoughts seemed to be scattered in lots of directions and when it comes time to focus on a particular activity in the classroom, he has an inability to focus in general. His actions and inattentiveness are affecting the other students in the classroom. It is also affecting his ability to learn.

Previously, he was getting solid high marks in school. Currently, his grades are slipping and he is at the bottom of his class. His grades are more of a reflection of his lack of focus, losing assignments, and problems following directions. His inability to focus, problems with listening, and his fidgety behavior are greatly interfering with his classroom attentiveness and subsequently negatively affecting his grades.

His parents describe his behavior for the past year as hyperactive and inattentive. Dillon is a classic case of ADHD.

Healthline explains that there are three types of ADHD: Inattentive, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.[1]

Behaviors associated with Inattentive ADHD include missing details, getting bored easily, difficulty focusing on a single task, loses personal items often, difficulty organizing thoughts, problems listening, moves slow or appears to daydream often, processes things more slowly than their peers, and trouble following directions.

Some of the behaviors associated with a predominately hyperactive-impulsive ADHD diagnosis include squirming, difficulty sitting still, talking incessantly, playing with small objects with their hands often even when it is not appropriate, act out of turn (not waiting), blurting out answers, difficulty participating in quiet activities, constantly on the go, and impatient.

Most people experience a combination of systems and are not exclusively hyperactive, inattentive, or impulsive. There is not a single test alone that determine an ADHD diagnosis. Instead, it is an assessment of patterns of behavior. The behaviors must also be determined to be disruptive to the individual’s ability to function on a daily basis. A psychologist or a psychiatrist can assess whether a child has ADHD. A psychiatrist is able to prescribe medicine for a child with ADHD.

Ultimately, it is up to the parent whether they want their child to take a medication for this disorder. There are many children who learn to manage their symptoms of ADHD through regular therapy.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)

The symptoms of this disorder and the criterion for diagnosing were discussed earlier in this article. The treatment for ODD often includes therapy and training for parents and the child. Treating the child alone is not typically effective. The parents play a huge role in the life of their child, so their ability to parent them in a manner that works to correct the ODD behaviors and symptoms is imperative.

A conduct disorder can develop if a child with ODD does not receive proper treatment. Conduct disorder is another DSM diagnosis, but this one is more often seen in teens who previously were diagnosed or showed signs of ODD. Conduct disorder is like taking the ODD to another level.

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Empowering Parents explains the difference between ODD and conduct disorder:[2]

A key difference between ODD and conduct disorder lies in the role of control. Kids who are oppositional or defiant will fight against being controlled. Kids who have begun to move—or have already moved—into conduct disorder will fight not only against being controlled, but will attempt to control others as well. This may be reflected by “conning” or manipulating others to do what they want, taking things that don’t belong to them simply because “I want it,” or using aggression or physical intimidation to control a situation.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Another girl, Kate, began to show signs of developmental delays around 12 months of age. She was not speaking any words yet, and her social interactions seemed to be different than other children her age. She would not make eye contact with people in general, including her parents. She rarely smiles and doesn’t show interest in interactions from others. By the age of 2, her parents describe her to be withdrawn and in her own world. At this age, she is only saying one word responses and her vocabulary is limited to only a handful of words.

While at play, she is very focused on one object. Currently, she is fixated on a toy drum and has no desire to play with or even hold another toy. She carries the drum everywhere and is fixated on this object.

Kate can often be found rocking from side to side for no explicable reason. She has been doing this behavior increasingly, especially if her daily routine is altered in any way. Having her nap time an hour later or not going to daycare on a regular weekday will upset her and cause a meltdown. Then, she will rock for hours. The effects of the meltdown last for hours, whereas most children recover after five minutes.

She is detached from human interaction, which is why her parents sought assessment for autism at age two. She is a child who has ASD. Her parents were wise in getting her assessed at a young age, as they are able to provide her with therapies and interventions very early in her development.

There is a great variation or spectrum of behaviors and severity of symptoms associated with ASD. It is called spectrum for a reason. Because some children can have a mild case of ASD, being considered high functioning. Whereas other children with an ASD diagnosis can have more severe symptoms such as mutism and sensory meltdowns on a regular basis and subsequently would be considered low functioning.

The Mayo Clinic explains that other disorders, such as Asperger’s syndrome, which used to be a separate diagnosis, are now grouped under ASD.[3]

Autism spectrum disorder includes conditions that were previously considered separate — autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and an unspecified form of pervasive developmental disorder. Some people still use the term “Asperger’s syndrome,” which is generally thought to be at the mild end of autism spectrum disorder.

When a child has autism, the symptoms usually appear at a young age and are especially noticeable as they become ages 2-3.

Autism Speaks is an organization that helps to research and provide solutions for people diagnosed with autism. They provide a wealth of information for parents and caregiver on their website, to keep people informed. Here is some pertinent information from Autism Speaks:

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States today.[4] We know that there is not one autism but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. The ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.

Diagnosis and treatment for autism is not a one size fits all. There is no single test that can be given to diagnose this disorder. It is an evaluation process and an overall assessment of the individual’s behaviors and development. The treatment can include a variety of modalities including occupational therapy, play therapy, speech therapy, and more. Treatment is dependent on the identified developmental issues and problematic behaviors that the child is experiencing.

To read more about autism, check out this LifeHack article about the signs of autism.

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Anxiety Disorder

Let’s take a look at another case. Sam has been increasingly agitated and anxious over the past year. He is now ten years old and has begun to have difficulties sleeping. He is anxious about his school work, and he discontinued soccer because it caused him such high levels of anxiety.

His parents decided to take him to see a psychologist because he no longer wants to go to school. His parents have to prod, encourage, and threaten him in order to get him to school each morning. His anxiety levels seem to be increasing over the past year. His extreme levels of worry are affecting every area of his life. He is no longer enjoying life because everything in his life seems to cause him anxiety.

His parents learn from the psychologist that Sam is likely suffering from GAD, but it is treatable and Sam will be able to resume activities in the near future with improved coping skills to better handle the stress of life.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a condition that children can have if they exhibit extreme worry and angst about their family relationships, friendships, school work, and/or extra curricular activities. With individuals diagnosed with GAD, their daily life is affected by their anxiety and it can negatively affect their sleep, relationships, schoolwork, and ability to participate in social activities. Some other symptoms of GAD include irritability, easy to upset, headaches, stomachaches, feeling overwhelmed with worry, and avoidance of school or social activities that cause the anxiety.

There are other types of anxiety disorders that can be experienced in childhood. These can include panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and phobias. Anxiety disorders are diagnosed by assessment from a mental health professional who will utilize the DSM for diagnosing criterion.

Therapy is the first course of action for children with anxiety disorders. Many children with anxiety disorders benefit from medication (typically short term 6 months to a year). Each child is different, as is their treatment plan. If a child has an anxiety disorder, the parents should work with the child’s doctor and a mental health professional to properly diagnose the child and create a treatment plan that is customized for this child’s situation.

For many children who are properly treated for their anxiety, they are able to overcome the anxiety entirely. Each child is different, but professional help can increase the probability that the child will overcome their anxiety and be able to resume normal activities. A reasonable time period for treatment outcomes, and to see dramatic positive results, is approximately six months to one year. This means that the child has weekly counseling sessions with a mental health professional that specializes in treating anxiety disorders in children in order for these kinds of results to be seen.

Depression

Here is another case study. Sally is a 9 year old who is having a hard time following the death of her brother. He was killed in a bike accident when he was hit by a car over a year ago. Sally seems to have lost all joy in her normal activities. She once enjoyed artwork and gymnastics. Now she has no interest in participating in these activities. When asked why she doesn’t want to do them anymore, her response is “what is the point?”

She is very irritable toward her parents. When they try to help her “get happy” by taking her ice-skating and to the county fair, she is crabby, irritable, and moody the entire time. Her parents express to a psychologist that they just can’t seem to make her happy. They also inform the psychologist that Sally doesn’t play with her friends anymore, she has trouble sleeping at night, and has a dramatic loss of appetite.

Sally is suffering from depression. She had not attended any counseling following her brother’s death. His death caused her to fall into an emotional depression. With counseling, she can overcome the depression and learn to cope with loss in the future.

Childhood depression is characterized by feelings of loneliness, sadness, and/or hopelessness. Childhood depression often presents very similar as adult depression. However, one major difference is that the sadness in children is often projected as irritability. Depression affects the whole child including their behavior, social interactions, thoughts, physical health, and mental well being. For a complete listing of symptoms associated with depression in children, see my other article on the signs of depression in children.

Depression in children is best diagnosed with a mental health professional. They will be able to assess the child according to the DSM diagnosing criterion to determine whether the child is clinically depressed. The treatment plan involves therapy when a child is depressed. In some cases, medications are recommended as well.

Each child is different, so they should be assessed on their individual behaviors and presenting issues for a customized treatment plan. Many children who are provided with proper treatment for their childhood depression are able to overcome their depression and go on to lead normal, healthy lives.

Bipolar Disorder

Another story I want to share with you is about Linda. Linda is a 13 year old girl who has just entered puberty. Her parents have noticed that over the past year, Linda’s behavior is either depressed or manic for stretches of days and/or weeks. They describe her moods to be cycles. For example, they say for the past week she has been high energy, with no need for sleep, hyper focused on a science fair project, and is easily irritated with everyone around her. They said that the previous two weeks before this high energy phase, she appeared very sad and depressed. They said that these cycles have been going on for more than a year and are disruptive to Linda’s school, social, and family life on a daily basis.

After further assessment by a psychologist, it is determined that Linda has bipolar disorder. Her parents elect to treat her with weekly therapy and medication.

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Bipolar disorder in children will typically emerge around adolescence, however, there are instances of children being diagnosed younger. Children with this disorder will exhibit cycles of manic behavior and then cycles of depression. The signs of bipolar disorder are similar in children and adults, however, as WebMD explains, there is one major difference between childhood and adult bipolar disorder:[5]

One of the most notable differences is that bipolar disorder in children cycles much more quickly. While manic and depressive periods may be separated by weeks, months, or years in adults, they can happen within a single day in children.

When a child is in the depressed phase of their bipolar disorder, they will exhibit the signs of depression, as explained previously. When they are in a manic phase, they exhibit behaviors such as irritability, decreased need for sleep, mind racing, extremely talkative, and easily distracted. They also can become hyper focused on a particular activity.

Many of these same behaviors are exhibited with children who have ADHD. This is why a professional assessment is needed for diagnosing. They can help determine whether there are cycles of depression and mania present that fit the diagnosing criterion for bipolar disorder.

Treatment can include therapy and often includes medication combined with consistent therapy. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but with help, the symptoms can be managed.

What Causes a Child to Have Behavioral Problems?

A combination of genetics and environmental factors cause behavioral problems in children.

For example, a child who has parents going through a divorce and is already predisposed to bouts of anxiety, may develop GAD because of these circumstances and the predisposition. It depends on the child, their ability to cope in the situation, and their genetic makeup.

It is not a debate over nature versus nature. Most clinicians believe that both play a role in the development of behavioral disorders in children.

How Do I Fix My Child’s Behavioral Problems?

Professional help is imperative when a child has serious behavioral problems. If you are uncertain, then the best policy is to talk to your child’s primary care doctor. They can provide you with insight and referral if needed.

Don’t be afraid to take your child to get evaluated because you don’t want them to be labeled. Labels don’t have to be permanent. However, behaviors and problems that are left untreated can become more permanent than any label. For example, a child with ODD that goes untreated can develop into a teen and young adult with a conduct disorder that lands them in prison. All of which can be avoidable if treatment is sought during childhood.

The purpose of a diagnosis is so that professionals know how to develop a treatment plan. For example, they know that children with ODD respond well to biofeedback methods and cognitive behavioral therapy methods. Following a diagnosis, the psychologist or psychiatrist treating your child can refer you to professionals that provide these treatment modalities.

Professionals also know that parental training is especially helpful in ODD cases. Parents can be taught ways to minimize the symptoms and behaviors associated with ODD. However, if the child doesn’t get a diagnosis for their problem, their likelihood of getting treatment for their specific problem is diminished greatly.

Final Thoughts

If you know that your child has problematic behaviors, please get them assessed by a professional, preferably a psychologist or a psychiatrist who specializes in diagnosing children. They can help direct you to the counseling and resources for your child’s specific problem.

Leaving a condition untreated is liking giving permission to the disorder to flourish and thrive. It will likely not change or improve through hope alone. Professional help is best for children who have serious behavioral problems. Don’t take on your child’s problems alone. There are professionals who want to help you, your child, and your family go from surviving to thriving.

If you don’t know where to even begin finding the right kind of help for your child, then start with contacting your child’s primary care doctor. Make an appointment to discuss the issues and problems that your child is experiencing.

Treatment is not a one size fits all. Finding professional help will best assist your child in getting the treatment plan that best fits their situation.

Featured photo credit: Caroline Hernandez via unsplash.com

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