When you see changes in your child’s behaviours, mood, or abilities, it can be tricky to figure out what is normal developmental changes or a barrier that may hinder developmental growth. You may wonder if your child can work through these challenges and stressors independently or if they might need the help of an expert.
Significant life events can contribute to problems with behaviour, mood, sleep, appetite, and overall functioning. Sometimes it can be really clear what is causing your child distress and discomfort such as the loss of a family pet, or witnessing an accident. Other times, your child may suddenly become consumed by worry, seem angry all the time, start having trouble sleeping, or start self-harming. The brain, nervous system, and the body are designed to interact with one another which allows us to listen to behavior, somatic symptoms, and emotional responses as communication. As a parent you can observe how your child is expressing themselves through art, play, and self-expression statements for a glimpse into your child's emotions. Here are some things to watch for that may indicate your child should see a therapist:
1. He/she is having difficulties in multiple environments (at home, in school, with peers).
2. He/she begins to isolate themselves from friends, family, or activities that they have previously enjoyed.
3. He/she frequently speaks negatively about him/herself. He/she makes statements such as "Nobody likes me", “I suck at...”, “I wish I was dead”, “I’m ugly”.
4. He/she begins regressing, and begins having difficulty with things he/she could previously do. Bedwetting, clingy behaviour, whining, excessive fearfulness, and tantrums may be a sign of a problem if they persist for a period longer than a month. Changes in a child’s environment, routine, or relationships can elicit regression to a previous developmental stage as a method of coping; if it persists your child may be stuck.
5. He/she is sad and or appears to have a significant decrease in energy with no clear explanation. If your child expresses that he/she feels sad/not happy but doesn’t know why or can’t tell you it’s an indicator they need help to uncover what is behind it.
6. He/she is worried, anxious, or fearful to the degree that it is effecting their ability to do things. If the worry is intruding on their thoughts throughout the day it is no longer a part of healthy worrying.
7. His/her sleep habits and/or appetite has changed. Symptoms such as stomach aches/headaches, difficulty falling asleep, waking up/restlessness, nightmares, eating too much or too little may be indication of stress or anxiety in children.
8. He/she begins to self harm (starving/binging/purging, cutting, bruising, damaging relationships).
9. He/she talks about death frequently or thinks about it repeatedly. Children typically develop questions or fears about death around ages 4 and 7. If a discussion about their curiosity or concern does not suffice, and questions and worries persist, talking with a mental health professional may be beneficial.
10. Signs of alcohol, drug, or other substance use and addiction.
“Your body is a powerful intuitive communicator. Intuition allows you to get the first warning signs when anything is off in your body so that you can address it. If you have a gut feeling about your body-listen to it.”
— Judith Orloff, PhD, author of Second Sight
I often help children see the connection between what they think, how they feel, and what they do (Think/Feel/Do); using this same concept you can see how a child's body and behaviour are communicating a need. As a parent you may experience intuition that something is not quite right with your child, in my world Intuition = Knowledge + Experience. Listen to your intuition and reach out to a mental health professional who specializes in working with children. It's also helpful to speak to caregivers and teachers who interact regularly with your child to determine if they too are noticing changes or any observing any difficulties your child may be having.
You can discuss your concerns with your child's paediatrician, who can rule out any medical conditions that could be having an effect. If you decide to contact a mental health professional you can ask your family doctor or your child’s paediatrician to make a referral to child and adolescent mental health services or a private practitioner. Many private practice therapists like myself don’t require a doctor’s referral and you can make the referral yourself. If you are not quite sure about the type of services that may be helpful to your child, contact your local services and they can help guide you. If you are on the South Shore in Nova Scotia feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your child and I can help you navigate what next steps may be helpful for you to take.
Clinical Social Worker
B.S.W., M.S.W., R.S.W.