Children face many obstacles as they grow up, and they all experience things like stress, grief, and bullying in their own ways. It can be difficult to know when your child can work through something independently and when he/she might need the help of an expert. In my practice, parents often wait as long as they possibly can before seeking therapy for their child. If your child breaks their wrist, it’s clear that you need to get him/her to the hospital right away. However, what do you do if your child is showing symptoms of anxiety and depression is much less straightforward.
The good news: There’s plenty of help for children who need it. Kids as young as age 3 can benefit from therapy, especially if you notice any of these red flags:
- They are having difficulties at home, in school, and beyond. When a child is struggling with his/her emotions, they tend to behave badly across the board — say, by talking back to a teacher at school, hitting siblings, and not listening to the soccer coach.
- They are suddenly isolating themselves from friends. Friendships change over time and some kids enjoy larger peer groups than others, but if your child is avoiding friends it’s a red flag. Be on the lookout for statements such as, “Everyone hates me” or “I’m a loser” or “I have no friends.”
- They are regressing. Here’s the thing: Kids tend to regress when there’s a major change in their lives, such as the birth of a new sibling, a move, or a divorce. But, things like bedwetting, clingy behavior, whining, excessive fearfulness, and tantrums that aren’t related to a change (or these behaviors are happening for more than a month after a big change) signal a problem.
- They are incredibly sad and worried. All kids have worries at times and all kids cry. That’s part of childhood. But, worrying isn’t normal if it’s interfering with your child’s ability to go to school or take care of himself/herself.
- Their sleeping habits and/or appetite has changed. Worrisome symptoms include trouble falling or staying asleep, nightmares, eating too much or too little, and excessive headaches and stomachaches.
- They have developed self-destructive behaviors. This can be a difficult one, because sometimes kids do bang their heads against things without intent to harm themselves. Repeated self-destructive behavior, however, is an issue–like, if your child is digging his/her nails into skin to try to cause pain, or cutting or hitting himself/herself.
- They talk about death, or think about it repeatedly. It’s normal if your child talks about dying and how he/she might die as they explore the concept of death, but repeated talk about death and dying is a red flag. Watch out for statements about suicide (in kid language, of course) or killing others. Any talk about suicide or killing another person requires the help of an expert…immediately.
At the end of the day, you know your child the best. You have to trust your gut. Children experience issues beyond the short list I have created. If you feel like something isn’t right and your child is struggling, you’re probably right. Also, many children play out their feelings and/or express their emotions through art. Pay close attention to art and play for a glimpse into your child’s emotions.
Never be afraid to make that first phone call to find a psychologist in your area. Your child, and your whole family, will be better for it.