When to Seek Help for Your Child

Many children go through a phase in which they show challenging behaviors.  For instance, many young children have tantrums when they don’t get their way.  In fact, this phase is so common that it has a name, “the terrible two’s.”  But what if your child is older and still has frequent tantrums?  Or is afraid to go to school?  Or refuses to do what teachers or parents ask?  It can sometimes be hard to know if the difficulties your child is experiencing are a normal part of childhood or a sign that you should seek help.  Parents may also be hesitant to talk about problems with someone outside the family, or they may worry that they will be blamed for their child’s difficulties. 

Many parents choose to consult with someone else—a friend, a clergy person, their child’s teacher or pediatrician—before seeking mental health services for their child.  It can be helpful to talk to others, such as teachers, who see your child in another setting, or to talk with a medical professional, such as a pediatrician, who is knowledgeable about typical child development.  For some families, talking with a teacher or pediatrician may resolve the problem, but for other children and families, this step may not be sufficient.

Each child and each family is different, but there are some signs that can help parents decide whether it is time to seek outside help for their child’s emotional or behavioral difficulties.  Generally, if emotional and behavioral difficulties are keeping your child from doing what most children their age do, it is likely time to seek help from a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.  More specific signs that it is time to seek help include the following:

  • Big drop in child’s school performance
  • Loss of interest in activities child previously enjoyed
  • Worry or anxiety that keeps your child from doing activities that are normal for his/her age (e.g., going to school, playing alone in room, going to sleep)
  • Sadness that does not seem to go away, even when your child is engaged in fun activities
  • Frequent or especially intense tantrums or “meltdowns” in older children or adolescents
  • Aggression toward adults or other children that is frequent or very intense (e.g., causes an injury to another person)
  • Frequently or almost always refuses to do what he or she is asked to do by parents or teachers
  • Threats of self-harm or suicide or attempts to hurt or kill self
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Severe mood swings
  • Very unusual thoughts or ideas or seeming out of touch with reality
  • Reaction to traumatic event that continues to affect child long after event has passed, learn more.

If your child is showing any of these signs or other signs of a mental health problem, it is likely time to seek help.  Seeking help for your child (and your family) offers the promise of new ways of thinking, responding, and coping.  In addition, by seeking help, parents convey to their child that there is hope for resolving current difficulties, and parents model a healthy coping strategy—reaching out for help. 

If your child or teen is experiencing any of the above symptoms and you would like to seek mental health services, please contact Austin Child Guidance Center at 512-451-2242.