Several years ago, I visited a preschool as part of an evaluation I was doing of one of my patients. It is rare for private psychologists to include a classroom observation in an evaluation but given my specialty, I do it as much as I can because it provides quite valuable information. Although children may notice me or even ask me a question like, “Whose mom are you,” I am typically able to be pretty unobtrusive.

This observation was different. I remember sitting down in the corner of the room. And then I was promptly mobbed. I was surrounded by 3 and 4 year old’s. They were not, however, just asking questions. They were also grabbing my coat and touching my face.  It was slightly disconcerting. It made me feel badly for rock stars who are mobbed by fans, fans who act like they have a close and intimate relationship with them.

I am very good with young children. Ages 3-6 is actually my favorite developmental stage. And not the shy ones, either. I like the spirited kids, the ones who have trouble keeping their zest in check.

Unfortunately, unless their learn to manage their behavior and emotions, about half of the young kids who are considered a “handful” or “hard-to-manage” go on to develop more serious mental health problems. So that’s why I work with parents and teachers to help kids learn to control themselves better so that their zestful natures help them to be happy and connected little people at home, at school, and in the community. This kind of treatment was actually my original specialty, the focus of my dissertation and my post-doc, not to mention training with one of the national leaders in the field while an intern at the University of Florida.

About four years ago, I stopped taking new patients for treatment. I needed to keep my after school hours to a minimum so that I could be home more for my family. So, I do about 80% testing and the other 20% are long term patients with whom I’ve had ongoing treatment relationships or who come back on an infrequent basis. I never know when a kid is going to need to see me for treatment again. It can happen any time, which makes scheduling difficult. And to see kids during the school day for treatment means their missing a lot of school on a regular basis.

I evaluated a young child last fall. I provided a referral list of psychologists who do the treatment I recommended. I got an email from the boy’s mom about three weeks ago asking for more referrals. She had called everyone on my list and was unable to get in at a time that would work for her family. It just so happened that my treatment load was light right at the moment she emailed. Also, I remembered how cute the little boy was. For the first time in four years, I said, “I can see you.”

I’ve seen them 3 times now. For me, I am having the time of my life. Wow, I miss treating little fireballs! I actually don’t understand why so few people specialize in this kind of work. The treatment is evidence base and has been around since the 60’s. The technology is not rocket science. Well, maybe it’s 1960’s rocket science. But the kids can behave like rockets and rocket-shaped kids are admittedly, scary. And when one (or two or three or four) of these kids are in a classroom, it’s super scary.

One of the reasons that little people can be scary is that they move quickly. They exhibit frequent concerning behaviors. Their moods can change rapidly. They live in the moment. Their brains are also growing rapidly. These qualities, my friends, can be used a resources. This means that you can respond to them frequently in ways that teach positive behaviors like cooperation and flexibility and to reduce less adaptive behaviors. Little kids don’t tend to hold grudges. They can get over small hurts and small disappointments. Little kids usually love to have their positive behaviors and growth recognized by adults. Obviously, not all little people are like this. I am, however, talking about a sizable subset of children.

I’ve encountered a lot of mental health providers who prefer to treat adolescents because they are “easier”. “Are you serious? Teens try to kill themselves, take drugs, get into car accidents, and other dangerous things.”

Now some of this is our tendency as mental health providers, to gravitate toward working with the population with whom we have the most skill. And I’ve had little kids do dangerous things like jumping out windows and much more commonly, run around parking lots. But little kids are more easily supervised and kept safe using a few key strategies.

I suppose, however, that it can seem surreal to hear that a child had an hour long tantrum over anything, especially something like not getting the color drinking glass that he wanted. I remember the heartbreak of my daughter when she was about 20 months old after she accidentally dropped her sippy cup of water into the penguin exhibit at the zoo. “Sippy, Sipppppppppy!!!!” Her crying only got harder after the penguins started pecking at it! She kept calling for “Sippy” in the car and for quite some time after we came back home. The ridiculousness of this makes it a funny story years later. But at the time, she considered her plastic cup to be alive and to be a very important friend.

Little children’s anguish over things like not earning a sticker or getting their sandwich cut the wrong way or the inhumanity of being placed in time out, is real. But the anguish will not result in death and by learning to manage strong emotions, to learn that ever negative emotion ends and that there are ways to self-soothe, they will be happier and healthier. When I think of my own adult life and the times I have experienced high anxiety, anger, dread, and acute sadness, I see that although the feelings have always been real, the situation is often not as dire as it seems. Sometimes the problem is mainly needing to calm down. And even when there are other problems to solve, calming down is often the first step.

I am very glad for this little person in my professional life, even if he is a handful. He is already learning quickly as are his parents. And by seeing the resilience of this little fireball and the hard work of his loving young parents, I am re-learning a handful of lessons about life, change, and growth.