A happy, well-balanced child: it’s all in your hands

A happy, well-balanced child: it’s all in your hands

Over the last few years, Indian private schools have seen a huge increase in the number of applications from children with attention deficit disorder, autism and pervasive development disorder. Now, many progressive schools have opened special education departments to deal with the ever-rising numbers.

The increasing number of people with mental health disorders is a global phenomenon. Every year, more and more people throughout the world are diagnosed as suffering from mental illness.

Worldwide, about 10% of children and young people have mental health problems. The really bad news is that once they become adults, the percentage suffering from these problems rises to at least 25% and the really, really bad news is that the more “advanced" a country becomes, the worse it gets! About half of all Americans will meet the criteria for some type of mental disorder sometime in their lifetime, with the first onset usually in childhood or adolescence.

Some special education needs teachers say it’s not clear whether the rise is real or whether it can be put down to increased awareness and better diagnosis. Others suggest that a combination of factors, including heredity, biology, psychological trauma and environmental stress, may be involved. Some believe that social fragmentation and a breakdown of family cohesion are factors.

The onset of mental illness is usually in childhood or adolescence. On average, most people with anxiety and impulse-control disorders develop these problems at age 11, and a recent study found that half of all lifetime cases start by age 14 and three-fourths by the age of 24.

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The most common mental health issues with children that schools have to deal with are related to anxiety disorders; eating disorders—the number of young children who are labelled “fussy eaters" is alarming; pervasive development disorders, disruptive behaviour disorders—angry and physical responses in kindergarten, or KG, children are disturbingly on the increase; and learning and affective (mood) disorders. More and more schools are employing education psychologists and mental health experts to help them with these children.

The signs that a child may be in need of professional help include a sharp decline in school performance, poor grades despite strong efforts, regular worry or anxiety, repeated refusal to go to school or take part in normal children’s activities, hyperactivity or fidgeting, persistent nightmares, persistent disobedience or aggression, frequent temper tantrums, depression, sadness or irritability. However, before you go rushing your poor child to the nearest psychiatrist, remember that mild forms of these phenomena are a normal part of growing up. Behaviours become symptoms when they occur very often, last a long time, occur at an unusual age or cause significant disruption to the child’s and/or family’s ability to function.

Usually parents find it easy to identify their child’s physical needs: nutritional food, warm clothes when it’s cold, bedtime at a reasonable hour, but a child’s mental and emotional needs may not be so obvious. The basics of a child’s good mental health involve the child’s need for unconditional love from a family and encouraging teachers who will nurture self-confidence and self-esteem in safe and secure surroundings. They also need lots of play and other children to play with.

We all know that adolescence is a highly stressful time for almost all our children and yet, many of our exam-obsessed schools do little to nurture the child’s self-esteem or encourage the child to socialize or play during that period.

On top of this, the child can easily fall victim to the school’s and the parents’ obsession about the need to study and “do well".

Being concerned—but relaxed and appropriately laid-back—is good for you and your child! Encouraging them to eat well and socialize with friends is good for them.

Many studies have demonstrated that television viewing can lead to serious mental health consequences. The average American child, like many Indian children, will watch 8,000 murders on TV before finishing elementary school.

By age 18, the average child is likely to have seen 200,000 acts of violence on TV, including 40,000 murders. The American Medical Association has found that 2,888 out of 3,000 studies show that TV violence is a casual factor in real-life mayhem. Studies throughout the world have shown that TV is a major influence on the development of poor risk assessment and a more paranoid view of the world.

It is also well documented that for many children, merchandising and advertising images can lead to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. Concern about the impact of TV has led to the recommendation that school-age children should be restricted to one hour a day of appropriate viewing and infants should not have any viewing time.

If you do become worried about your child’s mental health, you should contact your general physician or school. Some schools have in-house expertise and many can refer you to the appropriate professional.

At the end of the day, nothing matters more than a happy, well-balanced child—and that rests entirely in your hands.

Abha Adams is an education consultant. She writes a monthly column on training and education as they relate to careers and the workplace.

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