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When Does a Child Need Professional Help? 4 Ways You Can Tell

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Every person, young and old, experiences ups and downs in life.  People go through times of happiness when everything seems to be “just right” as well as those times when life seems a bit harder than usual.  Because life can be changing and include normal highs and lows, it can sometimes be difficult for parents to determine if or when their child may need some sort of mental health intervention.  Certainly some challenges can be overcome with only the support and love from one’s family while other issues would be most efficiently and effectively addressed with the assistance of a mental health professional (for children, the most developmentally appropriate option would be a play therapist, but as children get older and well into their teenage years, other options may work just as well).  How do parents make this distinction so they can know when a counselor is needed?

People vary widely, but some over-arching considerations can help parents make this judgement:

  1.  Duration— Reflect on how long the problem has persisted.  If your child has been in a depressed mood for the past week, something may have happened at school or within a social interaction that impacted his or her mood, and it will pass.  Having a heart-to-heart discussion with a parent might be helpful.  On the other hand, if your child used to be a bright-faced, happy child but now you can’t even remember the last time you saw her (or him) smile, there may be something more serious going on.
  2. Frequency— How frequently does the behavior occur? Does your child cry once in a while or does she cry literally every single day? As another example– having a random tantrum here and there is something that is developmentally normal and expected, but if your child has tantrums on a daily or otherwise frequent basis, there may be something else going on.  Similarly, it is not uncommon for children to be defiant (whether actively or passively) at times, but if your child’s defiance is so predictable that you’re surprised when the child actually puts on his shoes when asked, a therapeutic approach may be needed. The point is: even one hard day can feel overwhelming, but stop to reflect on how frequently your child makes you feel concerned (for whatever reason).
  3. Life Impact— To what extent does your child’s problem impact his or her life, the happiness and well-being of your family, and/or other people, like classmates at school? If your child has received several negative behavior slips at school, it can be upsetting to parents but does not necessarily indicate a problem that would require a counselor.  If you are ecstatic to make it through even one day without receiving a text or email from school personnel, and/or if evenings at home have become a predictable nightmare (homework time takes 3 hours every night instead of 30 minutes, for instance), the entire family is impacted.  Whatever your child is doing that has you concerned, consider the degree to which the problem is impacting not only the child but the family unit and others, in general. 
  4. Self-Esteem—Typically if a problem goes on for more than a brief time (which reflects back to #1, Duration), children began to perceive themselves differently.  A child who constantly gets in trouble for having difficulty sitting still in class begins to internalize the negative feedback and wonders, at least on a subconscious level, “Am I really bad?”  A child who continues to struggle academically without enough support or intervention (to clarify, for instance, if there are any legitimate learning challenges) will begin to have the self-view of being “stupid” or “not as smart as my sister,” for example.  Irrespective of what the specific concern is and how/when it began, the child begins to incorporate this lesser-than-ideal functioning into their view of self which can then “snowball” to create new problems for the child.  If your child’s self-esteem seems to already be suffering because of his or her challenges, a mental health professional would likely be beneficial.

After reflecting on the duration, frequency, life-and-self-esteem impact of any concerning behavior, parents can then make an informed plan of whether or not to seek professional assistance.  Thankfully, the stigma is now gone, and it’s quite common for parents to seek support (as needed) so that children and their families can lead the happy, productive lives they desire.