Parents should feel empowered to get their child help

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Rates of childhood anxiety and depression have increased during the past 15 years. The reasons for this are complex. Some speculate that societal changes, such as higher divorce rates, over scheduling and emphasis on achievement as opposed to emotional connection, are possible contributors.

Others wonder whether increased awareness has made the numbers grow.

Children that suffer from emotional disabilities need help. Last month Prince William and his wife, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, delivered a public service announcement in an attempt to increase awareness regarding mental health in children. Below is an excerpt of the announcement, which was delivered by Kate:

“Both William and I have seen that many young people are struggling to cope with the impact of bullying, bereavement, domestic violence, family breakdown, and more. Without support, the effects of these challenges can be traumatic, leading to serious issues such as anxiety, depression, addiction and self harm. The stigma around mental health means that many children do not get the help that they so badly need. This needs to change. We need to help young people and their parents understand that it is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. A child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health and deserves the same quality of support.”

The challenges to getting childhood mental illness recognized and treated are very real. And yet the sooner an emotional disorder can be recognized and treated, the easier it is to correct or manage. In children, when disorders such as anxiety and depression are left untreated, the results can be devastating. Children who struggle with depression or anxiety feel that they are different or incapable of meeting expectations, but often they don’t know why or what’s wrong with them. When anxiety and depression go untreated, secondary problems result. A teen who is depressed is often irritated with others. Her irritability pushes friends away and instead of having the support she desperately needs, she becomes more and more isolated and alone. The anxious, risk adverse child avoids typical childhood experiences such as playing on a sports team or attending an after school activity. These kids miss out on making social connections and feeling part of a group or community; ultimate buffers that help build resiliency against mental illness.

Today quality mental health treatment is often harder to access than it was 20 years ago, even though rates of mental illness are on the rise. Treatment facilities are saturated with acute cases, and higher functioning and sub-acute children may go without adequate treatment. Some of the most reputable facilities misdiagnose children who function higher during a one-time meeting than how they normally function in real life.

Parents don’t need to accept a misdiagnosis or succumb to the limitations of the system. Parents need to follow through until they find a doctor and facility that supports their concerns about their child. Stigma and fear of blame may have prevented parents in the past from seeking help. However, today we know that much of mental illness is biological and not related to good or bad parenting.

Here are some signs that your child may need help:

1. A chronic pattern of maladaptive behavior. If your child at age 10 or 11 won’t go outside alone or sleep alone, it’s time to figure out why. Or maybe your child overreacts to little things most of the time. She might be struggling with anxiety or depression. A child does not have to be suicidal to need help.

2. Isolation and avoidance. Is your son avoiding people or new things? A socially isolated child is not completely healthy regardless of how happy he appears. Children need social skills and social experiences to grow. Help them by accessing help now.

3. Underachievement. Is your child bright but not performing to her ability? It’s important to find out what is getting in her way. It might be something other than laziness. Formal evaluations with a qualified and highly trained psychologist or psychiatrist can answer these types of questions.

4. Bully target. Is your child almost always the kid who gets picked on or excluded or targeted? If so, he may have low self-esteem. Learn the origin of his low self-esteem by taking him to counseling.

5. Perfect to the outside world. Is your child seemingly awesome outside of the home, but a basket case at home? Don’t be seduced by praise of outsiders. If you are raising a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that’s not normal. Get him help so he can be happy even when he doesn’t have to put on an act in front of outsiders.

Children often can’t tell you what’s wrong when they don’t feel “right.” Parents can recognize signs that things are off and get their child the help they need sooner rather than later. Parents need to listen to their inner voice and not be dissuaded by the teachers and professionals who don’t see what you do at home. If you think your child is struggling, chances are you’re right. Getting help may not be easy, but it’s well worth the effort!

Dr. Kate Roberts is a licensed child and school psychologist and family therapist on the North Shore. Questions can be directed to kate@drkateroberts.com or www.drkateroberts.com.

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