Babble is partnering with PACER Center to help parents better understand and navigate the needs of children with mental health and behavior issues. This month, we’re talking about behavioral and developmental issues in preschoolers, and what to do if your child needs help.
It started with a whimper and a whine. Before long Nicki’s 3-year-old son, Charlie, was having a full-blown meltdown in the cereal aisle. Nicki’s attention had been focused on 6-year old Lucas, who was doing his best to fill the grocery cart with sugary snacks and throwaway toys. As Lucas lobbied for chocolate cereal, his little brother began knocking boxes off the shelf and yelling at full volume. Soon, Charlie was kicking Lucas in the leg and taking a swing at his mother.
Nicki tried to calm Charlie down, but nothing worked. Frustrated and embarrassed, she abandoned her grocery cart, grabbed Charlie by the arm, and fled the store with Lucas running behind.
This wasn’t the first time Charlie had behaved this way. His pleasant demeanor had started to change a few months ago. He began acting out, throwing toys, and having frequent and severe temper tantrums. Nicki tried everything she could think of to help Charlie, including modeling and rewarding good behavior, and redirecting behavior that was not appropriate. Nothing seemed to work. He wasn’t interested in being with other children his age. He resisted going to preschool. He cried excessively every night before bed and seldom slept through the night.
Although Charlie’s behavior was certainly different from Lucas’ at the same age, Nicki figured Charlie would eventually outgrow it. “It will get better,” she told herself. That day in the grocery store, however, she realized this wasn’t a passing phase – Charlie needed more help than she could give him on her own.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 5 children in the United States has a mental health condition, and many of them do not receive the help they need. Early detection and intervention is crucial to helping children overcome behavioral challenges and reach their full potential.
If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior, here are four steps you can take:
1. Connect with others
Helping your child socialize from a young age is important to their overall health and well-being, and observing them with their peers may help you identify differences in development and behavior at an earlier age. Even if your child has siblings to interact with, their familiarity might mask other areas of concern. You can connect with other parents and their children through play groups, religious activities, the YMCA, and early childhood programs through your school.
2. Observe and evaluate
Watch your child closely and make a list of your concerns. Talk with trusted friends, grandparents, and other parents to find out if your concerns are typical or unusual. PACER Center’s Action Information Sheets — “Tantrums, Tears, and Tempers: Behavior Is Communication” and “Young Children with Challenging Behavior: When Should Parents Be Concerned?” — are great resources to help you evaluate your child’s behavior and determine if it’s a sign of something more serious. Most importantly, listen to your instincts. If you feel that something is not right, you need to take action.
3. Schedule an evaluation
Screening is essential to early identification of mental health and developmental challenges in young children. A screening can be conducted by your child’s pediatrician, or you can request an early childhood diagnostic screening through your school district or other early-intervention program, which is available at no cost to all children ages 3 to
4. Seek resources
If your child is diagnosed with a developmental delay or mental health condition, you can receive free services from the school district in your home, childcare setting, or school. These programs may also offer no-cost parent education classes and other opportunities for learning and connecting with other families.
Has your preschooler experienced similar behavior to Charlie’s? Do you have a friend whose child is dealing with similar issues? Please share your stories and offer ideas to help other parents.