The nervous child is a far from uncommon phenomenon in the twentieth century. This is the age of neurotic women, who, like the proverbial Irishman, do not know what they want and won't be happy when they get it. It is the century of " rush," of strenuous men working at express speed. The natural result is the prevalence of neurasthenia amongst old and young, i en and women alike. Even children are not exempt. The "nervy" child is the natural offspring of neurotic parents. The neurotic temperament is characterised by an abnormal capacity for emotion. Neurotic people feel more keenly joy, sorrow, or pain. They control their emotions with difficulty. Under proper management, the neurotic boy or girl may grow into a brilliant man or woman. Neurasthenia is simply the neurotic temperament run riot. So that, when children suffer from "nerves," they should be taken in hand right away. It depends upon the mother whether the neurotic child, who is generally clever and bright, will degenerate into a faddist, a " cranky," difficult man or woman, or achieve brilliant success in after life.
Children who are nervous require special attention, if they are to escape the miseries of their own temperaments. Lack of attention may mean invalidism, feeble-mindedness, or even insanity. The nervous child is, in nine cases out of ten, the child of nervous parents. One parent, at any rate, is probably of the neurotic type. The only evidence of this may be undue irritability of temper, incapacity to concentrate on any definite plan of life, excessive shyness, sick headaches, a capacity for great imagination and feeling. A highly strung or nervous parent will probably have at least one nervous child. If she realises the child's condition, she may prevent a great deal of unhappiness and ill-health. Special feeding, special care taken to guard against over-education, and plenty of outdoor exercise is what the child who suffers from nerves absolutely requires. Rest, in liberal doses, is another essential. The mother who suffers from nerves herself knows that she craves for silence and absolute rest when her nerves are overstrained. She should recognise that the nervous child's fretfulness is due to excited nerves which are crying out for rest.
Signs of " Nerves "
How can a mother tell if a child is what doctors call neurotic? There are various types of nervous children. There is the shy, rather sad boy, who dislikes outdoor games, and who will sit three or four hours in solitude over a book. There is the unduly sensitive child, who suffers seriously from home-sickness at school, and who will cry until he is ill over the death of a favourite pet. There is the "cranky" girl, who is difficult to manage, subject to fits of temper, unduly self-conscious, and the victim of self-love. Many so-called "spoilt children" are neurotic, and their condition is intensified by maternal mismanagement. Other evidences of nerves in the nursery are night terrors, periodic outbursts of temper, habit spasms, and school headaches. Now, in the old days the "nervy" child had very little chance. People were so ignorant concerning the nervous system that a child who was subject to St. Vitus Dance was beaten for bad behaviour. A good whipping was considered the best cure for violent outbursts of temper, and Spartan treatment was meted out to the child who was afraid of the dark.
We are not very wise nowadays, but ignorance is not so rife on simple health matters as it was a generation ago. We know that "the tantrums" are very often an evidence of nerves; that restlessness may be a sign of commencing nervous disorder, such as St. Vitus Dance. The wise mother nowadays notes these symptoms from the very beginning, and seeks for a cause. Sometimes the cause is very simple, and its removal will make all the difference to the child's health. Eye-strain, for example, will produce headache, irritability of temper, and other signs of nerves. Adenoids and enlarged tonsils will cause nervousness. Poor general nutrition will increase any inherent tendency to nerves. If the mother herself cannot discover any cause of the child's nervous condition she should always consult a doctor. Some slight operation, such as circumcision may be necessary, and at least a doctor's advice concerning school-work and lessons is very necessary.
Overstrain at school has produced countless nervous breakdowns in after life. During school-life the child is growing very rapidly and developing into the man or woman. Heavy lessons, the strain of competitive examinations, are severely felt by children of the neurotic type in this age. The bright, clever child does not like to be beaten by his schoolfellows, and will spend too long over lessons which may be just a little. beyond his mental strength. It is for the mother to observe whether or not the children appear to find their lessons too heavy. She should always prevent the rather fragile, ambitious child from working "on his nerves." She should consult with the teacher as to the advisability of lightening the lessons, and perhaps giving up one of the extra subjects. She should regard anaemia, dyspepsia, and school headache as proof that the girl or boy is working beyond their capacity.
What to do for Nervous Children
The most important thing in the treatment of nervous ailments in the nursery is to begin early. All nervous disorders are more easily cured in the first stages, and judicious management is urgently called for whenever evidences of nervousness appear. The mother should attend most particularly to the diet of the nervous child. He is very often poorly nourished, and the foolish mother says to herself that it is "only his nerves." A child will suffer less from a broken arm than from symptoms of nervousness neglected for a few months. The nervous child is often difficult about his food, but every effort should be made to improve his nutrition. The diet should be plentiful but not excessive, as the nervous child readily suffers from dyspepsia. Milk, eggs, porridge, and cream, stewed fruit, thin bread thickly buttered should be given liberally. Butchers' meat and starches should be restricted. Meals must be regular and simple, but daintily served.
The second point in dealing with nervous children is to remember that they require sympathy, and must be encouraged to take a cheerful view of life. Their little ways are often irritating, but repression and severity are cruel and futile in that they increase any tendency to nervousness. Remember that the nervous child is subject to fears, and that fear is an evidence not of cowardice but of an imaginative temperament. A little kindly explanation, tact, and encouragement will help the child considerably to overcome the fears that are so real to him. Plenty of rest and sleep are important considerations. During sleep the nerves are recuperated, the brain gains new energy, the nervous system is soothed and calmed.
The nervous child must be kept from over-taxing his strength. He is apt to work hard, to concentrate, and. not realise how tired he is until he has overtaxed himself. He sleeps badly and is easily wakened and subject to dreaming. Fretfulness by day is very often the result of insufficient sleep at night. The mother should encourage an early bedtime and regular hours of sleep and rest. She should see that the nursery is well ventilated and that each child has a comfortable bed.
Lastly, attention to mental hygiene is nowadays being advocated by nerve specialists in dealing with nervous conditions. Constant faultfinding is the worst possible way of dealing with the nervous child. Drawing attention to his little ways before other people is cruelty of a more real description than starvation or physical beating. The power of suggestion must be utilised to make a child cultivate a quiet manner and to teach him to control his nervous habits. It is well-known that if the stammerer can be made to try to improve his defect by speaking slowly in a singing, rhythmical fashion, very good results can be anticipated. All nervous disorders are affected by auto-suggestion. If we begin to worry, and then suggest to ourselves that we are not going to worry, we have made a step forward. If a passionate child can be taught to suggest to himself that he is going to overcome his temper, he will gradually obtain control of himself.
Self-control is of the greatest importance to the nervous child. The mother must get into sympathy with him, must win his confidence, and induce him to work with her in educating his will-power and strengthening his nervous centres. If the mother herself suffers from nervousness, she must try to overcome the tendency by rest, diet, and methodical ways of life. If she finds that she has not a good influence upon her nervous child, she does better to consult the family doctor as to the advisability of letting him for a time be cared for by other people who will understand and manage him better. In bad cases it may be necessary to stop lessons altogether, and allow the child to live a quiet life in the country with plenty of fresh air and outdoor exercise. It is better for a child to spend a few months in the pursuit of health than to run any risk of his becoming a chronic mental case through neglect in the early stages of neurasthenia. In slight cases, of course, good home management is all that is necessary. Nature is a wonderful healer, and plenty of outdoor life, with cessation of lessons for a few months, will do wonders even for an advanced case of nerves in the nursery. It is a good plan to let the doctor see the child occasionally, to give advice as to the amount of lessons he is fit for, and supervise his diet and general health. At the same time, care must be taken that the child is not allowed to see that you are over-fearful about his health.