Salma Bhalla, above, outlines strategies to identify possible emotional and behavioral problems in young children in her new book, shown at top. Top image courtesy Salma Bhalla
University of Massachusetts Amherst-educated psychologist and author Salma Bhalla believes in nipping children’s behavioral problems in the bud, before they are allowed to follow a child into adulthood. Her new book, “Cues and Clues to Children’s Behaviors: A Guide to Raising a Happy, Well-Adjusted Child,” outlines strategies to identify possible emotional and behavioral problems in young people. It also gives parents warning signs of emotional distress in their kids and advice in dealing with their emotional needs.
Chapter headings correspond to various topics outlined in the book, such as “Children and Traumatic Stress,” “Developmental Stages” and “Become an Effective Parent” — making it easy for readers to pinpoint a particular behavioral trouble spot in need of correcting.
Bhalla points to shifting rules of communications as one of the major reasons parents are encountering behavioral problems in their kids. Face-to-face interactions are waning in the advent of ever-present cell phone calls and texts, and video games designed to allow peers to access shared games from anywhere, anytime, said Bhalla. “I see little children walking [around] with cell phones, seven, eight years old,” she said.
Aside from communications gadgets, the fact that peers are playing an increasingly important role in children’s social development is further eroding its progress in the United States. One way to offset this increasing influence is simply for parents to step into the picture. According to her, parents need to increase their presence with a mixture of different measures. One simple way for parents to remain involved in their children’s lives is to build into each day face-time to talk about the day’s events and how things are going at school. It is a good way to gain an overview of — and to hopefully manage — their children’s social circle and limit peer influence.
Bhalla acknowledges that the majority of parents are earnest in their attempt at parenting in the best way they can, but she believes that they can also miss the mark. Although a person’s individual parenting style may be ineffective, certain subconscious behaviors may be to blame because parents may not be consciously aware of the kind of cues they are sending to their kids, said Bhalla.
Planning family meals in which every family member is present is a good way of building valuable time together, but Bhalla cautions that using meals as a way of maintaining healthy interactions between family members can be a double-edged sword.
If parents conduct either work-related or social business at the dinner table they may also be missing a great opportunity to interact socially with their children, which can help counteract some of the peer influence their kids encounter at school, said Bhalla.
“Every parent tries to do the best … it’s not that they’re consciously neglecting their kids. It’s the way of society,” she said. Although some parents believe they are doing the best they can to be as attentive as possible, there is often a lack of knowledge about what children need, according to Bhalla.
In order to avoid a behavior turning into a behavioral problem, Bhalla suggests that parents should be tuned into their kids’ emotional development. This is difficult to achieve, especially with young children whose communication skills vary, said Bhalla.
For instance, anxiousness in a young child can flag an underlying emotional issue yet unknown to parents. Sometimes the problem lies with the parents, who are often unaware of some potent signals they may be sending their kids.
Bhalla cites parental arguments as a leading cause of anxiety. Many times, kids will express anxiety non-verbally.
In the classroom, for example, teachers may see those children as trying to agitate other students because of outwardly disruptive behavior, said Bhalla.
It is vital for parents to pay attention to the severity and duration of such a behavior, Bhalla said. If the behavior begins to interfere with everyday social interactions and persists for more than six months, parents should consider seeking professional help, according to Bhalla.
There is often a sharp divide in the way parents born in the United States and those born in India handle developmental issues, including some practices that can cause certain behavioral problems.
American parents tend to focus on making their kids well-rounded, emphasizing interpersonal skills, whereas many parents in the Indian-American community focus on report cards and their kids’ future careers, Bhalla said.
Unlike many of their American counterparts, kids with parents raised outside of the United States find that their opinions are rarely taken into account, said Bhalla. A strict parenting style like the one used by many Indian-American families can ultimately erode a child’s self-confidence, causing less classroom participation than would otherwise be the case, said Bhalla.
The key to keeping cultural traditions alive outside the home, in a wider societal context is balance, according to Bhalla. One example is having kids speak a native language at home while allowing them to interact with friends and schoolmates in English. This reinforces the importance of cultural preservation at home and a child’s comfort level in the wider world, said Bhalla. “Cultural values are important, but you need to have peace at home,” she said.
Bhalla earned a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She has 30 years of clinical experience dealing with young inpatient and outpatient clients with a variety of diagnoses ranging from anxiety and depression, to adjustment problems and working with kids in crisis. Bhalla, a former resident of East Longmeadow, worked for three years with kids and families at Holyoke Mental Health before moving to Phoenix, where she had a private practice. She now works as director of a children’s prevention program.
“I believe strongly in parents being effective role models for children … through their verbal and non-verbal communication if parents [are to] have a major role [in modeling the proper behavior for their kids,]” said Bhalla.
For more information about “Cues and Clues to Children’s Behaviors: A Guide to Raising a Happy Well-Adjusted Child” and to purchase a copy, visit www.childbehaviorcues.com.