“My child has been struggling lately, and I’m wondering if seeing someone may help.”
Overwhelmed and hesitant parents have left this message on my voicemail dozens of times. Knowing when your child is struggling with an emotional or behavioral concern is not as black and white as placing a thermometer under their tongue. Children and families have their own norms and developmental trajectories, and certainly, some struggle is a normal part of growing up (and being grown).
Our gut often tells us when something is off, even if we can’t quite pinpoint what it is exactly. Children (especially young ones) do not commonly have the intrapersonal resources to identify their struggles and request appropriate supports. But they will tell us something is off through their behavior.
This is why we need to have our antennas up to emotional and behavioral signals given by our children, which may indicate they would likely benefit from the outside support of a therapist.
Language that references causing harm to themselves or others
Disruptive behaviors that impact daily life in a variety of settings
Changes in eating, sleeping, or behavior
Major life changes or transitions
Loss of interest in typically enjoyed activities
Excessive anger or irritability
Extreme moods or sensitivities
Experiencing a traumatic event
Drop in grades or struggling in school
I should note that this list is not exhaustive, and your child can benefit from seeing a therapist even if the concern isn’t listed here.
Get over yourself
Let’s be real. No family has ever come skipping into my office whistling tunes from “The Sound of Music”. Unfortunately, there is still way too much stigma and embarrassment around the utilization of mental health services. It’s utterly stupid and ridiculous, but it’s the reality we live in. Even I have experienced these feelings in reaching out on my own family’s behalf, and I’m a therapist.
Having these feelings is normal, but don’t let them hold you back from acting in your child’s best interest. Acknowledge these thoughts as having zero validity, and move forward with the conviction that you are responsible for caring for and supporting your child’s health needs.
There may be other mental barriers causing you or your partner to hesitate before reaching out to a mental health professional, whether they be money, time, or “maybe they’ll grow out of it.” Maybe they will, but is that a chance on which you’re willing bet your child’s well-being? Many therapists have a sliding scale to accommodate for those without insurance or with financial stressors.
In the world we live in, it has somehow become acceptable to put off counseling for club baseball practice. But if we look at neuroscience and the way our brains work, your child will not be able to perform academically or athletically to their full capacity if they have stress hormones surging through their body, or emotional needs that are going unmet.
Therapy is one of the best things you can do for your child
After the first visit to my office, the vast majority of both parents and kids feel relieved and positive about the idea of coming back for further sessions.
Once you find a licensed therapist with expertise in treating children, who is also a good fit personality-wise, your child will likely experience a whole slew of positive skills and outcomes, in addition to the usual improvement in behavioral symptoms:
Learning about emotions, both simple and complex, is a skill that will benefit your child throughout their life. Learning how to acknowledge and express their emotions will reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Healthy outlets for challenging emotions
Your child will learn healthy coping mechanisms for life stressors they will carry with them into future development.
Therapy is all about learning how to be the best version of ourselves, and learning to harness and nurture our strengths while confronting our challenges. Therapy helps your children learn and appreciate who they are, which increases a strong sense of self.
The skills your child acquires in therapy are built on a foundation of a trusting relationship based on mutual respect and positive communication – concepts that will translate out of session as well.
Resourcefulness and problem-solving skills
Therapy aims to partner with the child in strategizing to find beneficial strategies and solutions to problems.
Where to go from here
The vast majority of pediatricians and family doctors have their own go-to trusted referrals for child therapists. You can also access qualified therapists through school counselors, insurance or work resources, mental health associations, or national organizations of professional therapists.
It doesn’t take long to realize our mental health system is not streamlined (don’t get me started on that), but don’t let that stop you from being the awesome advocate and parent you are for your child.
One of my favorite things to hear from parents is this: “I wanted to get a handle on it now, before it became too much of a problem.” The earlier children receive support, the better the prognosis.
After all, what harm can come from spending an hour consulting with a professional who’s invested their career in supporting children and families just like yours? I promise, therapists are not the weirdos we’re made out to be in the media (not the vast majority, at least).
The goal is that both you and your child will leave your therapist’s office breathing a little easier.
Angela Pruess, LMFT, is a Child and Family Therapist and special needs parent on a mission to support and empower parents of behaviorally challenging kids. She wants to make life easier for you by decoding your child’s maddening behaviors, as well as their developmental and emotional needs. When she’s not supporting parents, or seeing kids in her private practice, she is at home being challenged (a lot) by her own three kids (and sometimes husband). Follow ParentswithConfidence on Facebook.