When is it time to get my child help for mental health issues?
When children have emotional or behavioral problems, the earlier they get treatment, the easier it is to help them. But as parents, you also want to avoid unnecessary treatment and costs in both time and money.
When you’re concerned about a child’s mental health, you might be told by family members, friends, and maybe even your pediatrician to relax and wait — that kids grow out of it. Sometimes this is good advice. Sometimes it’s not.
When to take action
There are times when it’s clearly not a good idea to wait to get your child help for mental health issues. For instance:
Eating disorders: The longer a child lives with an eating disorder, the harder it is to recover. Getting treatment as quickly as possible can save your child’s life.
Family history: If mental illness runs in your family, be aware of the increased possibility that your child will begin to develop a disorder. In this case it’s important to act promptly.
Cutting and other self-harm: If you discover your child has been self-harming in any way, even if they say it was a one-time thing, it’s important to get help. It’s dangerous behavior that may be a way of dealing with a serious mental health issue.
When to wait
Some life events can cause changes in your child’s functioning as a part of a process of adjustment. Things like:
A new sibling
These can all have troubling effects on a child’s behavior. Most often this will pass with time. In fact, the criteria for many child and adolescent psychiatric disorders require problem behaviors or feelings to be present for at least a period of weeks or months. Sometimes you need to watch and wait.
Watching and waiting
How long you decide to monitor feelings and behaviors that concern you, or “symptoms,” depends on the age of your child and what you think is wrong.
If your child’s behavior is causing chronic trouble in school or is seriously disrupting your family life, it’s important to get help. Disruptive, explosive, or dangerous behavior can be generated by anxiety, trauma, and frustration from an undiagnosed learning problem, among other things.
Once you understand what’s behind your child’s behavior, there are often therapies that can be effective in teaching kids to rein in their behavior. When kids are out of control with parents or teachers, they need help. It can impact the health and well-being of your whole family.
For behavior problems, you’ll want to consult a mental health professional who can help diagnose and treat behavior disorders. You can consult a behavioral psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents, a child psychiatrist, or a social worker with expertise in treating young people.
If a child seems unusually anxious or sad or irritable for a long period of time and it’s interfering with the ability to do things that are appropriate for kids that age, it’s a good idea to seek help. Kids who are seriously anxious or depressed are not just suffering. They’re missing out on important parts of childhood. You want to get help as soon as possible, before your child falls behind in social and academic development.
It’s also a good idea because the longer kids live with something like anxiety, the likelier it is to shape their behavior in harmful ways. Kids who couldn’t sleep apart from their parents might become school-age kids who can’t have sleepovers with friends or go to camp. Kids who are excessively fearful could become adolescents whose identity and social life are structured around avoiding things that make them anxious.
If you decide to wait to get help, keep an eye on the problem and be ready to act if it doesn’t improve. Monitoring your child’s behavior can help you collect valuable information. What you don’t want to do is ignore a problem. Don’t convince yourself that “something” is “nothing.”
Talking to your partner
Getting help for your child, or not doing it, can be complicated by disagreement between parents as to what is or isn’t a “problem.” It’s common for parents to have different pictures of a child’s behavior, and different opinions about the kind of response that would be helpful.
This is a major reason families wait to seek advice or care. But, like all waiting, it should be active. Set a timetable for when you will talk about the issue again, and see if you can agree on goals for behaviors you would like to see changed. If you keep track of the issues you’re concerned about, you’ll have clearer grounds for making a decision when you revisit the subject.
Here are more things you can do if you’re concerned about your child’s mental health:
Get to know signs of anxiety and depression in kids.
Read expert advice on how to help kids who are lonely.
You can also get tips on how to respond when your child is frustrated. And for more information on treatment for mental health issues, visit our founding partner, the Child Mind Institute.
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About the author
Child Mind Institute, Understood Founding Partner is dedicated to transforming mental health care for children everywhere.