Emotional Disorders in Childhood

Comprehensive Guide to Emotional Disorders in Childhood

According to TOPBBACOLLEGES.COM, childhood emotional disorders are a group of mental illnesses that occur in children and adolescents. The disorders are particularly characterized by fear.

What are childhood emotional disorders?

According to the ICD-10 classification system, all disorders that show an enhancement of normal development belong to the emotional disorders of childhood. The focus is on the fear of a certain thing or a situation. It is characteristic that this object or the situation is actually harmless.

In the DSM-IV, another classification system for diseases, however, the emotional disorders of childhood are not listed separately. They are coded together with adult anxiety disorders and phobias so no attention is paid to the developmental component here. According to the ICD and the World Health Organization (WHO), however, the following diseases are among the emotional disorders of childhood:

  • Separation anxiety disorder of childhood
  • Social anxiety disorder of childhood
  • Emotional disorders with sibling rivalry
  • Phobic Disorder of Childhood
  • Other childhood emotional disorders


There are various theories for the development of emotional disorders in childhood. According to the doctrine of psychoanalysis, the disturbances arise from a failure to observe the needs of the child. Often it can also be observed that the caregivers of the sick children also appear anxious.

Another theory of psychoanalysis holds that the fears arise in connection with a separation anxiety. According to the classical learning theories and the cognitive approach, however, the fears are based on a classical conditioning. An originally neutral stimulus is given by the spatio-temporal coincidence with a fear-inducing stimulus that the actually neutral stimulus also triggers fear.

Fear can also be learned through model learning. For example, the child can observe that the mother reacts fearfully to dogs. From this the child concludes that dogs must be dangerous and consequently also reacts with fear. Some researchers suggest that fear of some objects or situations is innate.

Fears can only be reduced by confronting the fear-inducing situation. If this does not happen, the fears remain. The American psychiatrist and psychotherapist Aaron Temkin Beck assumes that the emotional disorders of childhood are based on a cognitive triad. Three triggers are therefore required for fear to arise: a negative self-image, a negative interpretation of the situation / the object and a nihilistic attitude towards the future.

Symptoms, ailments & signs

Around ten percent of all children and adolescents suffer at least briefly from an anxiety disorder in the course of their development. One to four percent have fear of separation. Overall, fewer boys than girls are affected by emotional disorders at kindergarten age.

The anxiety disorders often begin in early childhood and can become chronic into adulthood. The disturbances can hinder the child’s normal development. It is not uncommon for comorbid disorders to develop in the course of the disease. In particular, there is a very high comorbidity with other anxiety disorders.

Almost half of all children with an emotional disorder also have another anxiety disorder. Many sufferers also have depressive disorders. Often times, the emotional disorders precede the depressive disorders. Comorbidities can also be found with disorders of social behavior, obsessive- compulsive symptoms, elective mutism and depersonalization syndromes. Depending on the type of disorder, different key symptoms also occur.

Separation anxiety disorder manifests itself as a persistent worry that something might happen to the caregiver. The affected children refuse to go to school or kindergarten in order to be able to stay with their caregiver. You have nightmares about the breakup. Somatic symptoms such as nausea, headache or abdominal pain can also occur before or during the separation.

In the phobic disorder, the children show pronounced fears of certain objects or situations. The children sweat or shiver in the fearful situation. You may have difficulty breathing, dizziness or tightness. Persistent anxiety in social situations indicates disorders with social anxiety.

The children act self-consciously towards strangers. They are embarrassed or overly concerned about their behavior. As a result, social relationships are significantly reduced and impaired. This in turn leads to silence, crying and a strong feeling of unhappiness in the children. Emotional disorders with sibling rivalry are expressed through competition with younger siblings. The child vies for the parents’ attention and is often angry.


If an emotional disturbance in childhood is suspected, the treating doctor or treating psychiatrist or psychotherapist will talk to the child concerned and his or her parents. History of strangers with siblings, other children, or teachers can provide further clues as to whether there is an emotional disorder.

When should you go to the doctor?

The emotional disorders in childhood should be clarified by a doctor as soon as they are perceived as unusual by the parents or close relatives. If the behavior of the child differs from that of its peers, this is considered an indication to consult a doctor and determine the causes. Children go through different phases in which they show abnormal behavior. This is considered normal and does not need to be examined or treated. Persistent crying or screaming for several hours is an indication of a problem that must be discussed and clarified by a doctor.

There may be physical as well as emotional stresses that the child needs help to cope with. If the child refuses to eat, spits out the eaten meal immediately, or withdraws from social contacts in a noticeable manner, there is cause for concern. A visit to the doctor is necessary for children who do not play, are apathetic, disinterested and listless. If the child’s behavior suddenly changes after an event, a doctor should be consulted. Triggers can be the loss of a parent, a move, or a change in social facilities. In these cases, the child needs support in processing the events.

Treatment & Therapy

In most cases, outpatient treatment is sufficient. A multimodal approach is usually followed. First, children and parents should be provided with information about the anxiety disorder. This part of the therapy is also called psychoeducation. In addition, behavior-oriented interventions, psychodynamic psychotherapies and also body psychotherapies can be carried out.

Family therapies or family involvement in therapy can improve treatment outcomes. In individual cases, treatment with psychotropic drugs may be necessary. In particularly severe cases, outpatient treatment is not sufficient, so that inpatient or partial inpatient therapy may be necessary.

Outlook & forecast

The prospect of healing in the case of emotional disorders in childhood is tied to various influencing factors. The most important predictors include the child’s personality, the time of treatment, environmental influences, and the progression of the disorders present.

The prognosis worsens as soon as there are several mental illnesses and the social environment does not react appropriately to the existing complaints. In these cases, there is a threat of an increase and manifestation of the symptoms. In the absence of support, confidence, and understanding, symptoms can worsen or become chronic.

In most cases, anxiety is what triggers the emotional disturbance. Parents and legal guardians can discuss how to deal with fears and insecurities even without therapeutic support. Specialist literature or various institutions offer many offers of help that can be used. With appropriate reactions and training in everyday life, improvements in the complaints are possible.

Emotional fluctuations occur in every person. If the circumstances are explained to children and their fears are taken seriously, the symptoms are often alleviated. In many cases, when a therapy is used, the disorders improve more quickly. The competence of a therapist enables targeted work with the causes of the disorders. Parents are given comprehensive information and important behavioral advice.


Since the exact causes of the emotional disorders of childhood are unknown, the individual disorders cannot be prevented.


Special follow-up measures are usually not available for this disease. The emotional disturbances in childhood should be recognized as early as possible and treated by a doctor so that there are no complications or other psychological upsets or depression in later adulthood.

It is crucial that parents recognize the symptoms of emotional disorders in childhood at an early stage and consult a doctor. The treatment of this disorder is always based on the exact severity and is usually accompanied by a psychologist and in some cases also supported with the help of medication. Parents should ensure that their children take the medication correctly and regularly in order to alleviate the symptoms.

Sensitive discussions with the children are also often necessary in order to alleviate the fears and complaints and to limit these disorders. However, it cannot be universally predicted whether there will be a complete healing. The support of the entire family can also be useful. The life expectancy of the child is usually not restricted by disorders of this type.

You can do that yourself

Emotional disorders in childhood generally require professional therapy. This should start early after the diagnosis in order to give the child the best possible chance for his development. Appropriately trained therapists in the field of emotional disorders in childhood can tackle the problem in a targeted manner and often achieve good results relatively quickly, from which the child’s social environment also benefits.

Once a diagnosis of a disorder is in the room, it is not advisable for parents to want to act as the child’s therapist in everyday life. In the absence of psychological expertise, no improvement can realistically be achieved, and delaying professional therapy means suffering for the child.

When it comes to self-help, there is little parents can do about a diagnosed childhood emotional disorder. Nevertheless, they have options to support their child well in everyday life and to accompany them through the therapy. This also includes a positive view of the therapy and the willingness of the parents to work constructively with the therapist.

A clearly structured everyday life is also helpful for the child, which helps him to find his way around well despite his disorder, to know rules and to be instructed in compliance with them. Children with emotional disorders in particular can often appear demanding and stressful for those around them. It is precisely these children who repeatedly need the express assurance of parental love in order to be able to develop a good level of self-confidence.

Emotional Disorders in Childhood

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