Catherine Larson, MD
7 Signs that it's Time to Seek Mental Health Treatment for your Child
Updated: Feb 25
Watching your child struggle with mental health symptoms can be an overwhelming experience. Parents are filled with questions and uncertainties about when and where to get help. To make the experience a little less intimidating, I have written a series of articles to simplify the process. You can read an overview of the series here. This is the first article in the series, written to help you know when it may be time to get your child evaluated.
Every child or teen will have times when the struggle with sadness, fear, anger or school difficulties. Many times, these are normal developmental experiences that every child or teen will experience. But how do you know when these difficulties are more than the normal developmental difficulties? How do you know when to seek professional help?
Many parents struggle with making the decision to get an evaluation because it can be difficult to know the difference between normal difficulties and the beginning of a mental illness. Psychologists and psychiatrists spend years learning normal child development and have experience in differentiating normal thoughts, feelings and behaviors from those which could be signs they need additional help.
As a parent, you know your child better than anyone. If you are asking yourself if your child needs some additional support or treatment, you may want to go ahead and schedule an evaluation. There are three main reasons for this:
What is the harm of getting help too early? If your child does need help, you will be glad you started early. If your child does not need additional support, you can still get some guidance on what to watch for and when to come back if needed.
Therapy can help even if your child is dealing with developmentally normal difficulties. Children may be having a normal response to a transition or stressful situation. During these times, therapy can help to process and deal constructively with these issues, preventing difficulties later on. Your child does not need to have a diagnosable mental illness to benefit from therapy.
There are real risks with delaying treatment. If your child does have a mental illness, it usually worsens and becomes harder to treat when it is present longer.
Some of the more common illnesses in children are depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But many children will have periods when their mood is low, or they appear more stressed or anxious or struggle in school. These are not always a cause for concern but sometimes they do need to be evaluated and treated.
This list is intended not to describe possible illnesses that your child may have. This list has some general red flags that the severity of their symptoms may be enough that it is time to take a closer look at what may be going on. For example, if your child seems to worry more than they used to, it may be normal and all it may take is a conversation to discover what may be bothering them. However, if they seem to be more worried AND they are not wanting to spend time with friends or family or if they seem more worried AND they are not doing well in school, then you may want to get some professional help because this suggests the worry may be starting to interfere with their functioning.
For a website with excellent resources and descriptions of the various mental illnesses in children, visit the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry website and search their Facts for Families list. If you would like to read about some of the symptoms specific to depression in children and teens, read this article on the Austin Child Psychiatry Blog.
Whether your concerns are excessive worry, low mood, attention problems or many other psychiatric symptoms, the markers of severity are similar.
Here is a list of a few examples:
Withdrawing from friends and/or family
Loss of interest in activities
Difficulties in school
Not bouncing back from a difficult experience
Changes in sleep, appetite or energy levels
Negative self talk
Risk-taking behaviors or substance use
This is not an exhaustive list. If you have specific concerns, always ask a professional.
This list has general signs that something may be going on for your child. They are not specific symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. Specific symptoms vary from one illness to another. This list is intended for you to notice signs that your child may be struggling and it may be time to talk with them to get a better sense of what may be going on and to look into finding them some additional support. For more information on where to start your mental health treatment, check back for the next article coming soon.