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Sudden Change of Behavior

When a child  has an abrupt behavior change that does not have a phyiscal or medical origin we often look for an event, an environment or a physical demand that has become stressful to the child. When a change of behavior is sudden and intense, as a first step we want to know if she feels safe.

Often we have only outward signs. For instance, one mom reached out when her otherwise “amazing seven year old” suddenly stopped eating and started whining and crying. She complained enough of belly pain that they took a trip to the emergency room. Mom described the behavior as ALL day EVERY day.

With little to go on, consult your gut. As an educator I often say to parents ”trust your gut.” When our gut “clenches” it is telling us something about our values and the behavior or environment we are experiencing. This is a gift to all of us when we have little other information to guide us.

And consider what is new—new friend, new school, new camp, new teacher…

Developmentally this seven-year-old will have very little ability to self-reflect about what is making her tummy clench. Some ideas you might try are:

  • slowing down the pace of her day to create some calm periods for you and she to regroup.
  • personifying her belly and asking her if her belly had words what would it say or what is making it sad or scared.
  • or another avenue into self-understanding can be to create a context of shared helping by talking about a friend’s little boy whose tummy has begun to hurt and what she thinks might help him.

We cannot discipline away hurts, fears, and anxieties. Rather than focus on the behavior and potentially missing the true source of distress—for instance, for this little girl, focusing on food and potentially diverting her fears into a power struggle about eating— I encourage loved ones to become her team member to help her figure out which foods help her belly feel best and to listen with your head and your heart for any clues about what could be contributing to her whining, tears, and clenching belly.

This little girl hasn’t turned into someone Mom doesn’t know, she is showing Mom through her behavior that something in her life is too big for her to handle without help.


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