The Time To Seek A Child Therapist

Nearly 5 million of our nation’s children are currently diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Kids are susceptible to developing a disorder due to risk factors in their biology or genetics; within their families, schools, and communities; and among their peers. So, how do you know if/when it’s time for your child to see a therapist? Read on for 6 signs that your child may need to begin therapy.

What To Do When Your Kid Is Struggling: 6 Signs That It’s Time To Seek A Child Therapist

“How do I know when it is time to take my kid to see a child therapist?” This is one of the most common questions that I receive from parents. My answer is almost always the same. If you think that whatever your child is struggling with is affecting his/her functioning, then it is best to consult with a professional. I also tell parents that if there is anything that is going on, it is best to treat it early on. Most importantly, if you think that there is something that is worth investigating with your child, then always trust your instincts as a parent. I meet so many parents who tell me that their pediatricians or their friends and family told them they had nothing to worry about, and it turned out that there was something. Always think that it is better to be safe than sorry. As parents, we know best if there is something going on with our child.

Importance of Early Detection

Depression presents itself differently in children than it does in adults. It’s hard to imagine a preschooler being depressed — why is that? When we think of depression, we think of how it affects an adult: the inability to get out of bed, eating too much, not eating enough, crying unexpectedly, isolation, etc. But what does it look like in a 2-year-old? In a 4-year-old? In young children, the signs can be very different from what we expect to see in a human who has depression, so often it is difficult to diagnose.

It is now widely recognized that preschoolers get depressed, and it is treatable, but not much research has been done on the subject. The importance of early detection is starting to come to light, though. Research suggests that 1 to 2 percent of children ages 2- to 5-years-old have depression, and that undiagnosed depression in toddlers can lead to more of it later in life. Many disorders and symptoms have been linked to early-life stress, including anxiety, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, fibromyalgia, and addiction. Getting treatment early on is vital.

Don’t Bottle It Up

Many of us know that if we bottle up stress, anxiety, and fear, it can live inside of us for years, which is damaging in the long run, or it can explode when we least expect it. If we work through it as it comes, however, it’s more likely to work itself out in our day-to-day lives, allowing us to live healthier lives overall. The same is true for children who do not have an outlet to talk about their feelings or experiences. The earlier we are able to diagnose and detect something in a child, the better.

ADHD

This week, I had a mom approach me with her 12-year-old, whom she claimed wasn’t listening when addressed directly, and was easily distracted, intruding on others, always “on the go,” and forgetful.  As the mom was talking, I counted at least five symptoms of inattentiveness and hyperactivity in her child, and I am certain that if I kept speaking with her, I would have found one more that, together with the existence of these behaviors, would indicate that her child most likely has ADHD (Attention- Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).

Many studies have linked depression in children to ADHD, and research has shown that early intervention can make beneficial differences to outcomes for people with ADHD. The earlier ADHD is noticed and treated, the earlier intervention can begin. This will help prevent more severe symptoms from developing down the road.

And now, onto the good stuff! Below are 6 signs that your child may need to see a therapist.

#1 – Exhibiting Signs of Depression or Anxiety

While it is normal to experience feelings of sadness or anxiety, your child might need professional support if these feelings start affecting his or her daily activities. For instance, if your child is missing school or social activities that he/she didn’t miss before because he/she is feeling too sad or anxious, then you might want to explore this further and make sure that there is nothing clinically going on. I find that most parents already know when something is going on with their child, and if it is sadness or anxiety, it is something that requires extra attention. The most common anxieties among children are separation anxiety, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Here are some specific signs that they may be experiencing depression or anxiety:

  • Depressed or irritable mood
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Change in grades, getting into trouble at school, or refusing to go to school
  • Change in eating habits
  • Feeling angry or irritable
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling worthless or restless
  • Frequent sadness or crying
  • Withdrawing from friends and activities
  • Loss of energy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

It is important to note that everyone feels sad sometimes! Just because your child isn’t happy-go-lucky all the time doesn’t mean that he or she has a disorder. If the above symptoms persist for long amounts of time, though, and they begin to interfere with your child’s or your family’s daily life, then it is important to get it checked out.

#2 – Acting Out or Struggling at School, Home, and Other Places

If you find that your child is having a hard time across activities, such as hitting others or acting out of control, then you might want to seek professional help. If your child is experiencing issues one day here and one day there, and the teachers are not complaining, then you probably have no real reasons to seek treatment for your child. However, if you are getting repetitive calls from your child’s teachers, and other parents complain about your child’s behavior, then it is time to intervene.

#3 – Experiencing Change in Sleep

Today, I spoke with a concerned mom of an 8-year-old, who shared that her daughter had been having a hard time falling asleep for the past two weeks. The mother told me that she had been working with a sleep specialist, thinking that the issues were related to sleep. However, after two weeks of working together, the mom and the sleep therapist agreed that the daughter had other behavioral issues that required a behaviorist. It turned out that she was suffering from anxiety.

Many children have changes in sleep patterns throughout their childhoods, but if it is interfering with their life, then it is good to look into it.

#4 – Experiencing Regression in Behavior

This can include behavior such as going to the bathroom differently, using a pacifier, or bed-wetting. While it can be normal for children to experience a regression in behavior following events such as having a new baby or moving into a new house, it is still good to monitor your child to make sure that these behaviors are only temporarily and not affecting his/her regular functioning.

One example that comes to mind is when one mother called me concerned about her-5-year-old. Her daughter had started drawing on her face while sucking her thumb again, two years after she originally stopped. When I asked for any recent life changes, the mom couldn’t think of anything that would have affected her daughter. When I asked about other people who were involved in her daughter’s life and if they had any meaningful events in their life, the mom told me about her nanny, whose mother had recently died. It turned out that the nanny was depressed and didn’t pay much attention to the 5-year-old, who felt scared and worried about the nanny. The results were that the daughter regressed developmentally and started demonstrating behaviors that had helped to soothe her earlier in life. After I connected the mom with the right child therapist, her daughter was able to express her fears and anxieties surrounding the death of her nanny’s mom. With the help of the child therapist, the mom learned that her nanny shared her feelings of sadness with her daughter and cried during the time she spent with her daughter. This affected her daughter in such negative ways, but with the help of her therapist, her daughter started to feel much better. Also, the mom realized that her nanny was too depressed to work and care for her daughter, and therefore decided to find another nanny.

#5 – Experiencing Loss of Appetite

If you notice that your child is skipping meals or eating less at every meal, than you might want to take note of how many meals he/she skips, and keep track of what is happening around or during meal time. While this can just be a stage or nothing to worry about, you should pay close attention to the number of times your child skips meals or restricts foods, because this could be a symptom that something is going on. It is possible that this is how your child is expressing his/her feelings.

In previous blogs, I talked about my daughter and how she stopped eating bread and pasta because one of her classmates made a comment that pasta and bread would make her fat. She also asked me to buy low fat milk because she was concerned that she would get fat if she drank 2% milk. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to what was happening, but then I found out that she was also hiding her lunch boxes. I ended up calling one of the more experienced eating disorder specialists I work with and consulting with her on the best way to handle this.

As an eating disorder specialist, I wanted to make sure that this was something we handled right away. With the help of Dr. Judith Brisman, who helped guide me, we decided that the best thing to do would be to first contact the school counselor to inform her about what had been going on during lunch. I also set up a call with my daughter’s teachers to make sure that she was doing well in school, and to chat about other issues that may have been going on while in school that I should be aware of. Second, I decided to have an honest and open conversation with my daughter to let her know that I noticed that she had been hiding her sandwiches after school. I also told her that if she didn’t like what I made, if what she took for lunch was too much, or if she wasn’t hungry, it was absolutely okay. I told her I could modify what I made her every day. Most importantly, I wanted my daughter to know that I trusted that she would make the right decision when it came to eating, and that she didn’t have to hide food from me. I was curious about why she was hiding the food from me, as I would not get angry if she trashed it in school or even once she got home. It seemed to me that she was doing that to get attention, especially because her older sister had received extra attention in the weeks before. After we had an open and honest conversation, I told her that we would have special time the next day, and she was excited about that. We ended up going to a sushi place after school, and she ate everything she ordered. I decided not to worry, and to keep reinforcing to my daughter that I honored that she would make the right decision.

#6 – Isolating Themselves from Friends and Family

This is a common trait in both adults and children, so it can be easier to detect than with other symptoms. If your child is changing how they interact with people who are close to them, it may be a sign that they are unable to connect and are experiencing depression or anxiety.

Children with learning disabilities and attention issues may feel lonely because they may experience life in a different way from those around them. It is common for them to feel isolated from their peers, and research shows that children with these struggles are more apt to feel lonely.

If your child is isolating themselves from friends and family, it could be a larger issue: They may have learning disabilities or attention issues, and/or they may be experiencing depression for another reason. Either way, when there is a noticeable change in how your child presents him/herself with those who are close to him/her, talk to your child about their loneliness. Depending on what you decide together, it might be a good idea to seek professional help.

What Can I Do?

First step? Talk to your child! They may provide answers for you on what steps to take next. They may want to talk to you about how they are feeling, and they may tell you what they need. Really listen to them.

Talk to your child’s doctor. Some medical problems can cause depression, and, if this is the case, your doctor may be able to help you find the cause.

Promote health. Exercise and diet are essential to feeling your best, which is the case for children, as well. Perhaps your child is willing to join a sport so they can get moving. Encourage them to join you on walks, and make the movement fun! Walk to the zoo, or run laps around the lake in silly ways. Many children do better when there is a goal at the end. Do anything to get them moving! And, make sure they are eating well. Even if they are picky eaters, there are many ways to get them to eat better and encourage health. (See our picky eater blog post for more information on that!)

Ask us! This is our specialty. We connect families with the health and wellness services they need. Whatever issue you are concerned about, we can find the best specialists for you in your area, from sleep specialists to psychotherapists to tutors to fitness coaches. Let us help you connect to the person who can change your child’s life! If you would like me to connect you with one of our expert therapists or dietitians, please contact me. I look forward to hearing from you!

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