When a child is struggling, the whole family is affected. For parents, it’s hard to know when a child is displaying problematic behaviors that are developmentally appropriate, or when a child’s behavior is more concerning, and is in need of clinical support. It’s important not to over react, but when a child is experiencing feelings or behavior that is interfering with their daily functioning at home, school, or community, it’s essential to seek professional help.
Here are some things I recommend parents consider when thinking about whether they should reach out to a mental health professional for support.
How often is my child having these problems, and do they get in the way of their daily functioning?
It’s common for children to experience occasional worries, sadness, and stress. It’s actually healthy for children to experience some anxiety as it helps keep them safe from harm, and connected to others. For example, anxiety prevents children from running out in the middle of a busy street, or talking to a stranger who appears alarming. But when a child is constantly stressed and upset, regresses, or is self-destructive and isolates themselves, their daily routine becomes overwhelming, and even completing simple tasks become a struggle.
It’s sometimes helpful to ask yourself, “does my child have a meltdown when things go wrong, or have a hard time getting along with others?” “Does my child’s behavior get in the way of his/her learning, or completing tasks?” “Are my child’s actions disrupting the family, and causing conflict at home?” “Is my child unable to do things he/she wants to do, or does not take pleasure in things his/her peers enjoy?” As parents, you have to trust your gut, and if you feel something isn’t quite right, consult with a professional to gain insight as to what may be going on, and assess if therapy is a good option at this time.
Is my child experiencing somatic complaints as a result of their feelings and/or behaviors?
When a child is experiencing emotional or behavioral issues, they sometimes experience somatic complaints which result in headaches, nausea or stomach aches, rashes, or fatigue. Some children are not aware of or have a hard time expressing their emotions, and they feel the effects of their emotions internally. Children complain of “butterflies in their stomach” or “ants in their pants,” and have a hard time understanding what is going on in their bodies.
While it’s always important to have your child evaluated by a pediatrician to rule out any over looked medical condition, somatic issues tend to play a large role in mental health issues. If you notice your child often complaining about not feeling well in certain environments, or surrounding specific events, it may be helpful to speak with a therapist so you can learn to read and respond to your child’s emotions, potentially alleviating the issue of physical complaints.
Is my child a risk to him/herself or others?
Sometimes children intentionally and unintentionally hurt themselves as a way to manage difficult emotions. For example, some children purposely dig their nails into their skin, or hit themselves, while others bang their heads against things, or pull out their hair without intent to harm themselves. More seriously, it’s a red flag if children talk about death, or have thoughts about wanting to kill themselves. Other times, children may be a risk to peers when they bully them, as a result of feeling seriously distressed, or have a hard time regulating their behaviors.
This topic is difficult for parents to discuss as the subject matter can be very uncomfortable. It’s important though to seek out help immediately, as your child’s safety may be at risk. Speaking with a therapist will not only provide you and your child with tools to prevent self-harm, but your child can learn healthy friendship skills and have positive interactions with their peers.
When disagreements about your child's behaviors cause strain on your life, marriage, or partnership.
While raising a child can be one of the most rewarding experiences, it can bring up challenges that lead to stress, and cause you to doubt your abilities to take care of your child properly. There are so many different parenting styles, and when your child is in distress, it’s hard to know the best way to approach the situation. Some parents complain that their child is “driving them crazy,” and they are at “their wits end” when deciding how to manage their child’s emotions and behaviors.
When parents become stressed, not only does their child become more worried and their problematic behaviors increase, but the household environment turns into a place full of yelling and discord. This type of situation may also cause parents to resent their child, since they are using up all the oxygen in the home, leaving little time or energy for each other or themselves. This is when it’s helpful to look into family therapy to receive psycho-education, coping skills, and support to enhance communication between family members, and help to create a more cohesive family dynamic.
When you as a parent don’t know what to do and feel stuck.
There is no such thing as the perfect child or parent. Everyone has their own opinions, and it’s hard not to feel like you “flunked parenthood” when you don’t know how to respond to your child’s needs. No one wants to see their child suffer, and it’s hard not to feel guilt or shame when you don’t have the answers to make their pain go away. Since there are so many different tools and interventions available to help improve a child’s mental state, it’s hard to know which one will be the best fit for your child and family. Consulting with a mental health professional can help ease the stress, and support you in deciding what type of treatment or evidence based therapy can improve your child’s mental functioning, and help them to be happy and succeed in life.