People are going through hard times right now – kids included. So, as a parent, how do you know whether or not your child is experiencing a behavioral health issue worth seeing a therapist about?
We asked Community Health Partners’ Behavioral Health Director, Ellie Sedor, LCPC, a few questions to help you navigate your child’s behavioral health. Having spent much of her career working in child and family therapy, she’s seen children for a variety of behavioral health issues and worked closely with their families to find solutions and restore hope.
"The first thing to know is that kids often speak through their behavior and their play," said Ellie. "View their behavior as communication."
It can be hard to know how to interpret their behavior sometimes, though. Here are some common signs that something might be off, and what you can do to help them.
Stress doesn’t just affect adults. Situations involving ongoing stress, like the loss of a loved one or being separated from a parent, can take a toll. And intense situations like seeing a car crash or experiencing a violent act can also have an impact. While emotional reactions to events like these should be expected to an extent, if you see major shifts in a youth’s behavior, mood, or general functioning, it may be a sign that your young one needs extra support.
Look out for persistent or intense fears, worries, sadness, hopelessness, or anger—especially when emotions or behavior begin to impact their ability to participate fully in daily routines or activities.
Ongoing problems or changes in physiological functioning that aren’t explained by medical issues can also point out a larger problem. For example, look for loss of appetite, appearing excessively tired, significant weight gain or loss—especially over a short period of time—and frequent physical ailments like tummy aches.
Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing differences from what was previously normal for your child. Keep an eye out for sudden changes in overall functioning at home, school, or in other settings – especially drastic ones. Take note if they’re not improving on their own or with support from caring adults. This might involve frequent, intense emotional outbursts, or ones that last a long time.
Other changes might involve a step backwards developmentally, like a return to bedwetting even when they’re well past that phase. Or you might hear them using baby talk even after they’ve started speaking in a more mature way.
Sometimes behavioral health issues go along with other challenges. They might have trouble thinking of themself, others, or the future in a positive light. Or they might have ongoing issues interacting with others, like peers, family members, teachers, or others in their life. Watch for persistent social withdrawal, disinterest in hobbies or play, and a general sense that they’re struggling or distracted. You might also see persistent behavioral or academic challenges. The key here is “persistent,” or challenges that don’t seem to go away with time and extra help.
It’s normal for kids to have questions, curiosities, and fears around death. But a frequent mention of death and dying that becomes more constant or obsessive might point toward a behavioral health issue. You should always take any mention of suicidal thoughts, or thoughts of causing serious harm to others, seriously. The same goes for any self-harm behaviors.
Destructive behavior can be self-directed, or directed toward others. Things like physical aggression or frequent or intense verbal aggression can point to a problem as well. They might speak violently, or make threats to physically harm others. You could see violent themes in play or in art for younger children. Destructive behavior can also include things like frequent lying, stealing, or other behaviors that negatively impact themselves, others, or the community.
If you notice these issues, the first step is to try to connect with your child and ask them what’s going on. Keep in mind that kids (especially young children) may not be able to understand, let alone describe, what’s bothering them. Older kids may feel hesitant to share their true thoughts and feelings. Try not to take that personally. The best you can do is ask, give them time to think, be sure to quietly listen to their responses, and remember that their concerns are real and their feelings are valid - even if they don’t make sense to you or seem like small problems. If the situation is chronic and things aren’t improving after you’ve offered support and tried some solutions, that’s a time to reach out to someone. Start with your child’s healthcare provider. They can connect you to the right specialists as needed. Make an appointment through a CHP clinic for affordable access to a primary care provider. Caring medical professionals are there to help you navigate your child’s health, both physical and mental. If behavioral therapy is recommended, you can easily set up an appointment with a therapist at CHP. Remember, CHP will see anyone in need regardless of their ability to pay.
One thing to keep in mind: therapeutic work for children and youth is usually hands-on and often requires some commitment from parents or guardians. Depending on the unique situation and how old the child is, you may be asked to join in on sessions, explore family issues, learn new parenting strategies, and reflect and change with them. The hard work is well worth it to help your child thrive.