Your child always wants the same thing for lunch: Half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with orange slices and some carrot sticks. As it approaches noon you head to the pantry to pull out the ingredients, but something's amiss. You can't find the jar of peanut butter anywhere. Then you remember: You used the last of it yesterday. Panic sets in and your blood pressure rises. You know what this means. Despite your enthusiastic and gentle recommendation of "Maybe we could try a turkey and cheese sandwich today," you see your child's eyes start to well up with tears. The next few hours are spent calming screams and trying to get him to eat something, anything.
You know childhood tantrums are nothing out of the ordinary, and something as simple as a child losing a flyer she received at the mall can send her spinning, but this happens every time your son's routine is uprooted, even in the slightest way. You tell yourself it's probably normal, all the while a fear of the stigma associated with diagnosis, as well as the fear of overreacting, creep into your head.
For so many parents, scenes like this are all too familiar. As adult mental health issues continue to gain attention and shed some of their stigma, pediatric mental health remains in the shadows. Not only do psychologists and the larger medical community struggle understand it, but we (children and adults alike), continue to stigmatize it. And, because developing brains are prone to erratic, even dramatic behavior, parents can struggle to find the line between "normal" and "concerning." In an effort to get to the root of the problem, Parents, in collaboration with the Child Mind Institute surveyed 400 American moms and dads. The results printed in their important feature article, "I think there's something wrong with my child", were sobering, but not shocking.
"65 percent said they would wait weeks or longer before seeking help if they noticed a mental health symptom in their child."
"70 percent said they believe mental health diagnoses carry a stigma."
"83 percent said they wouldn't want to overreact."
One of the most important points made in the article, alongside the fact that pediatric mental health should be a national priority, is that it's never a risk, never an overreaction, to seek mental health services for your child. At the very least, you can be reassured that he's fine and gain some advice on how to handle challenging behaviors. And, if you do learn that there could be a deeper psychological issue, you have caught it early and given your child a better chance at working through it.
Pediatric psychologists all agree: early intervention lends the best chance of halting the progression of mental illness, and it's the best defense against a child facing major difficulties in adulthood.
Dr. Rahil Briggs, director of ZERO TO THREE's HealthySteps program told Parents, "the brain is at its most 'plastic' when children are very young, which means the things they learn over and over again at this age tend to stick, including strategies to help them manage stress." Without professional help in managing life's stressors, damaging and distressing coping mechanisms can become difficult-to-change habits, and for some children, hard-and-fast rules.
Dr. Briggs tells parents to look for the two Ds: distress and dysfunction. Is your child more often distressed than she is happy or content? Are her behaviors so consistently disruptive that it's a struggling just to get the day has become the norm? These are signs of underlying issues. Parents also lists a few more signs that it might be time to contact a mental health professional: signs they call "pink flags" due to the fact that sometimes they can be quite normal.
- Disordered sleep
- Tummy trouble
- Obsessive thoughts or fears
- Disinterest in fun
- Guilty conscience
- Explosive anger
- Dark thoughts
Adopted children face unique struggles, and this means adoptive parents are more often put in the position of having to determine between normal and abnormal behavior. Because of this, Cradle therapists also stress choosing to have your child evaluated before symptoms get worse. One therapist has even provided adoption-specific reasons to bring your child to see a therapist.
The takeaway is clear: childhood behavior is confusing. Sometimes a major tantrum is just that. But other times, it's a signal that something else might be wrong. An evaluation can give you peace of mind or help take the first steps in addressing your child's mental health difficulties.