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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 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 her wrist, it’s clear that you need to get her to the hospital right away. What to do if your child is showing symptoms of anxiety and depression, however, is often much less straightforward.
The good news: There’s plenty of help out there for children who need it. Kids as young as age 4 can benefit from therapy, especially if you notice any of these red flags:
1. He’s having difficulties at home, in school, and beyond. When a child is struggling with his emotions, he tends to behave badly across the board — say, by talking back to his teacher at school, hitting his siblings, and not listening to his coach.
2. She’s suddenly isolating herself from friends. Friendships change over time and some kids enjoy larger peer groups than others, but if she’s 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.”
3. He’s 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 between their parents. 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.
4. She’s 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 her ability to go to school or take care of herself.
5. His sleep 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.
6. She’s 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 she’s digging her nails into skin to try to cause pain, or cutting or hitting herself.
7. He talks about death, or thinks about it repeatedly. It’s normal if he talks about dying and how he might die as he explores 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. 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 feelings 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 child psychotherapist in your area. Your child, and your whole family, will be better for it. Check Good Therapy to find a counselor in your area.