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11 Signs That Your Child May Need a Therapist

All kids have emotional ups and downs: periods of moodiness, trouble with friends, dips in academic performance.

But how do you know if your child is struggling with something more serious? And when should you seek professional help?

Some struggles are normal

“Some moodiness, anxiety, and social and school difficulties are expected as kids grow up,” says psychologist Kristen Eastman, PsyD. “I call them bumps in the road.”

These normal developmental challenges may require your child to change perspectives or learn new skills. In most cases, if you offer support, sensitivity and patience, your child can figure it out.

“When these things pop up, I encourage parents to try to listen first and validate their child’s experience,” Dr. Eastman says.

It’s natural to want to quickly jump in and try to problem-solve, but children just need to know they’re heard and understood. She suggests using phrases like, “I see this is really hard for you,” or “I notice you’ve been struggling lately.”

“You’ll be surprised how far validating your child‘s experience can go in helping them feel heard,” she says. “Then they’re more receptive to talking about how to get through it.”

When to seek help

Yet what seems like a normal childhood difficulty can sometimes turn into something more serious. Dr. Eastman says you should be concerned if your child:

  1. Has problems in multiple areas of life, such as family relationships, academic performance, leisure activities and friendships.
  2. Starts feeling bad about himself or herself, less confident or less effective.
  3. Shows excessive worry about the future.
  4. Expresses hopelessness.
  5. Withdraws from family, friends or activities he or she used to enjoy.
  6. Has a significant change in sleep habits or appetite.
  7. Engages in negative behavior more frequently.
  8. Has repetitive, self-destructive behaviors such as hair-pulling or skin-picking.
  9. Talks about or engages in any kind of self-harm.
  10. Makes comments like “I wish I weren’t here,” or “Nobody would care if I ran away.”
  11. Talks explicitly about suicide.

Dr. Eastman also recommends that parents trust their gut. “You know your child best. If something just doesn’t feel right, trust that instinct. It’s better to go and get something checked out if you’re not sure.”

How to reach out

Don’t be afraid to broach the topic with your child, says Dr. Eastman. “Often if you just say to your child, ‘Does this feel like something we need to get some help with?’ they’ll say, ‘Yeah, it does,’ ” she notes.

Parents are often surprised by how willing their children are to get extra help.

That help is as close as your pediatrician. “Pediatricians are often very good at helping parents differentiate what is and isn’t normal, and can offer reassurance,” Dr. Eastman says. If necessary, your pediatrician can refer you to a therapist who is a good match for your child and recommend other resources.

Parents sometimes assume that mental health treatment will mean medication or hospitalization for their child.

“But even when problems aren’t severe, therapy can help the child and family learn new coping skills and different strategies for handling problems,” Dr. Eastman says. “We need to destigmatize the idea of mental health treatment.”

Whether your child needs help navigating normal developmental challenges or is dealing with something more serious, seeking help can make life easier and happier for all of you.

health.clevelandclinic.org

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