Sometimes people are afraid to acknowledge troubling signs with their kids because they think it will reflect poorly on their parenting skills. As that thinking goes: “If you were really a good parent, why would your kid need therapy?” But that’s backwards thinking. You wouldn’t expect yourself to have the skills to heal a broken arm. Nor would most parents be expected to treat burns or beat back cancer. So why should we expect ourselves as parents to be able to resolve significant mental or emotional problems without help. Seeking help for your child in distress is the act of a good parent. Ignoring problems is not. You should not let fear of backward thinking or stigma prevent you from seeking professional help for your child when needed.
With kids, early intervention can be a significant factor in the ultimate longterm success of treatments or therapies. And, in the short term, appropriately prompt intervention can improve the overall well being of your child and your family. So, if you’re on the fence about seeking professional help for your child sooner rather than later, read on for some guideposts to consider.
When Is It Reasonable Wait Before Seeking Professional Help For Your Child?
Sometimes people put off seeking professional help because they are afraid of overreacting. Or, because they hope or believe that situation will resolve itself over time. And this may well be true.
These are common situations when it makes sense to wait and gather more information:
- If you can point to some concrete life event that may have caused the behavior you’re worried about. For instance, a new sibling, divorce, death or other significant family drama or trauma.
- If the behavior causing concern is recent and of short duration. So if it is only a few days or a couple of weeks, then monitoring the situation seems appropriate.
But don’t let waiting and watching become a trap. We know how easy time flies before you realize it. Particularly if you have an inclination to avoid the situation to begin with.
So keep track. Make a note of the date you first have a concern and why. Then make a point (with a calendar or phone reminder, for instance) to check back in with your self in a few days or a week. This will help you not lose track of how long something has really been going on.
When you look at your notes, you will see that what may be remembered as only happening a couple of weeks ago was really closer to two months ago.
How long should you wait?
This depends on the nature and context of your concerns. If your concerns involve issues of physical safety (your child or others), or if it involves disruptive behavior in school, then quick action is warranted. This article from Understood.org provides more insights into when certain emotional or behavioral concerns warrant prompt action and why.
The Downsides of Waiting
A big downside of waiting to seek professional help for your child is missing out on the benefits of early intervention. And, keep in mind that your fears about what might be going on may not actually relate to what is actually going on. For instance, intense emotions, like with an angry child, can mask other conditions that require professional help to diagnose.
Also, the longer you wait to seek professional help for your child, the longer your overall home situation and other family members may be unnecessarily suffering.
Today’s Parent provides insightful first-hand accounts of parents working through the decision of whether to seek professional help for their young children.
Red Flags For Kids
The way we view each of these potential flags will change depending on the age of the child, particularly if your concerns involve and adolescent or teen. Scroll down to find more information specific to teens.
If you observe these signs over an extended period of time (more than two weeks or so), you should investigate further and consider professional assistance.
- Disruptive or problematic behavior occurring across multiple settings, and not just at home. So problems at school, with extended family, with friends, and/or with extracurricular activities.
- Recurring behaviors that cause physical injuries to self or others – like head banging, cutting, hair pulling.
- Social isolation and withdrawal – not wanting to engage with friends or participate in activities that they typically enjoy.
- Self-isolation at home – a typically outgoing child who suddenly wants to spend most of his (or her) free time in his room.
- Extreme sadness or worrying that interferes with regular activities.
- Repeated references to death and dying out of context. “I wish I was dead” or “I wish so and so was dead.” (If someone is actually having these thoughts, just telling them to stop saying things like that won’t help the situation).
- Frequent occurrence or complaints of physical symptoms often associated with anxiety like headaches, stomaches, dizziness, chest or insides feeling constricted.
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain not associated with a growth spurt.
- Recurring sleep disturbances.
Special Red Flags For Teens
The teenager years can bring their own special level of turmoil and angst. Some signs that might be alarming in younger children, could be relatively normal when talking about a teen. And we understandably don’t want to over react.
But here are three Big Red Flags that warrant followup for any teen:
- Self-harm and the intential infliction of self-injury
- Suspected substance abuse
- Any threats of suicide or attempts of suicide
Where To Seek Professional Help For Your Child?
When you are ready to seek professional help for your child, you can start by raising your concerns with your pediatrician or other treating physician. Either to get his or her direct input or to solicit recommendations and referrals.
If your pediatrician is not a viable option (or is otherwise unhelpful), this article from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry provides a robust list of resources for finding a therapist for your child. And it also provides good information on the different types of professionals who provide such services. As well as tips on how to determine which ones are qualified to address your issues.
Once you have the names of one or two potential professionals, you will want to evaluate whether a particular potential therapist is a good fit for your situation. This article from an actual child therapist on How to Find a Good Child Therapist provides great tips and suggestions into what to look for in your initial meeting with a therapist.
If your child has learning and attention issues, you should specifically ask whether the therapist has any experience working with kids who have learning and attention issues. And, you want to make sure that they have an understanding of how learning and attention issues can affect kids emotionally.