Red, scratchy throat. Strep test.
Squinting at the chalkboard. Time for glasses!
Obsessive worry about spiders. Angry outbursts at the drop of a hat. Constant arguing with teachers.
Many parents have a “feeling” that their child is struggling but don’t know how to help.
Instead of hoping that things blow over or brushing it aside, it might be time to seek support from a mental health professional.
You are not alone.
Many children — and their parents — thrive once they begin meeting with a therapist.
Reasons a child or teen may need therapy:
- Something is just “not right”: Many times parents cannot put their finger on what is wrong; they just know that their child does not seem as happy or content as they used to be. As the parent, you are the expert on your child and their behavior. You’ve known them the longest, and spent the most time with them, so you know when their attitude or behaviors change. Trust your gut instinct.
- Comments like, “I wish I was dead” or “I’m going to kill myself”: For some children, this is a statement used when feeling words fail or they are not able to come up with a more appropriate statement, like “I felt so humiliated today when Josh broke up with me in front of my whole lunch table.” For other children, this statement is true and a serious cry for help. For more information on suicide and how to respond if your child is suicidal, visit http://helpguide.org/mental/suicide_prevention.htm.
- Big life changes: Divorce, separation, blending families, parents’ job loss, moving, change of schools, and loss of a pet or loved one may have a huge impact on your child. Children are perceptive and may be affected by changes even if you have not discussed them specifically, such as financial difficulty, infidelity, or a serious medical diagnosis.
- Statements about fears/worries: Everyone worries sometimes, but if you notice your child’s worries seem to be escalating to the point that they seem bothered by them, they avoid particular activities or situations, or they engage in a pattern of behavior (such as repeated hand washing or constantly checking to make sure the door is locked) it may be time to seek therapy.
- Change in eating habits (gaining or losing excessive amounts of weight): Many teenagers eat a lot, they choose unhealthy foods, and experience normal growth spurts. Some children appear to be eating normally but are losing or gaining weight rapidly. A change in your child’s weight may not immediately be cause for concern; however, it may be more concerning if it is coupled with other things on this list. If you find out that your child is eating and making themselves vomit, or if they are restricting their food, it is cause for concern. For more information on eating disorders, visit: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/eating_disorder_self_help.htm.
- Change in sleeping habits: As with eating patterns, sleeping habits change drastically as your child grows. However, if you notice your child is having difficulty falling asleep, waking up with nightmares, having difficulty falling back to sleep, or sleeping too much, it may be a sign that there is a bigger concern.
- Increased irritability: Younger children may have more frequent tantrums and/or louder outbursts. Older children may display more “attitude” and refuse to comply with requests, or they may seem to be more easily annoyed by the behaviors and actions of others. Things that were previously minor now cause your child to react violently or become aggressive.
- Increased isolation: Most teenagers do not like to hang out with their parents on the weekend. However, if your teen is spending more time alone, avoiding social events, sitting in their bedroom in the dark, or refusing to participate in any family activities (especially ones that were at least tolerated by your teen previously), isolation may be a sign of something more serious.
- Asking to go to therapy: If a child asks to go to therapy, they are verbalizing that they need help. You may feel like you’ve failed them or let them down; when in reality you have the opportunity to provide them with the best support in their time of need.
There are many other reasons to seek therapy for your child, your child may benefit from therapy even if the behavior or concern is not listed here.
You do not need to have all of the answers; your job is to share your concern with someone who can help.
A phone call or email to a therapist is the first step. Together, you, your child and the therapist will discuss the pros and cons of starting therapy, and determine the next steps.
A few more things…
This list is not exhaustive, and should not be used in the place of mental health advice from a trained professional or as a do-it-yourself diagnosis chart for your child. However, this list may help you look for patterns in your child’s behavior and help you determine the next steps.
As you read this list, you may start to realize that your child may benefit from therapy. You may have many reactions to this conclusion, including anxiety, sadness, helplessness, hopelessness or relief. These are all normal reactions.
You may also feel overwhelmed with the seemingly daunting task of finding a good therapist. Take a deep breath.
Your friends, school counselors, and pediatricians may be able to provide you with referrals in your area. You can also check with your insurance company. Online directories such as www.psychologytoday.com may also be helpful. Some therapists are willing to give you a few minutes over the phone to hear your concerns and help you determine if therapy is right for your child.