QUIET TROUBLE IS EASIER TO MISS
James N Kraut, Psy.D.
And unfortunately, if you have both types of behavior going on at the same time, the child who is getting in trouble successfully commands our attention and we therefore tend to feel like the quieter child, who is technically staying out of trouble, is handling things better. Externalizing means the necessity of dealing with irate teachers, principals, sometimes law enforcement and angry parents of other children. When your kid internalizes, no one is offended; no one is hurt. Internalizing vs externalizing is not a matter of severity either, i.e., the really upset child externalizes and the one whose wounds are not so bad just take the problems inward. In fact, internalizers are more likely to hurt themselves and even attempt suicide because no one is listening.
I see a patient who is now in his 20s and spent his adolescent and early adult years as a world-class externalizer. He killed animals, got into fights, attacked one of his teachers and engaged in many other behaviors that made life miserable for his parents for seemingly endless years. He had a brother, on the other hand, who was a good kid, never got in trouble, did well academically, etc. As a result of his abysmal behavior, my patient got all kinds of mental health treatment though the years and attended a number of special schools and behavioral programs, whereas his brother went the traditional route, kept quiet and caused no trouble. Fast forward ten years and my patient has grown up to be a self-aware young man who no longer acts out. He is now happily employed in a supervisory position and lives a satisfying, productive life. His brother, on the other hand, quietly fell into addiction, developed the habit of lying to those close to him about what he was doing with his life and ultimately became so depressed he needed to be hospitalized.
The moral of this story is that children whose problems result in their becoming quieter can be evidencing trauma and psychological pain that is just as intense and profound as those who draw attention to themselves through hard to-miss dysfunctional behavior. Attentive parents need to be just as aware of their children’s subtler indicators of trouble – changes in the direction of withdrawal and quietness – as they are the ones whose behaviors are designed to get their attention. If your kid is spending more time alone and doesn’t seem as interested in things that used to turn them on, have a conversation with them about it. Listen and encourage expression of feelings. Try to draw out your internalizer. Most importantly, remind the withdrawn child of how much you love them. Chances are they have never needed that reassurance more than they do right now.