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How to Know When Your Child Needs Professional Mental Health Care

It’s safe to say that adolescents experience a wide range of emotions and behaviors. So how do you know when those emotions or behaviors have strayed beyond the range of “normal”? Just what is considered “normal” behavior? And, more importantly, how can a parent know when a child’s emotions or behaviors require attention by a mental health professional?

These aren’t easy questions, and there aren’t any one-size-fits-all answers. However, there are some guidelines that can help you decide when it’s time to seek help.

First, as a parent, you know your child best. If you have an unshakable feeling that something just isn't right, follow up with a professional. Begin with your family doctor. Talk to your child’s teachers. Ask other family members about behaviors you’ve observed in your child. Engaging in these discussions will help you evaluate whether you are observing a persistent problem, or a passing phase.

Next, consider how long the behavior has been present. If the behavior is relatively new, examine external issues that could be influencing your child. Has there been a recent death, divorce, problem with a sibling, school issue, etc., that could have set your child off balance, temporarily? If the behavior is persistent and is making it difficult or impossible for your child to carry out every day activities like self-care, sleeping, eating, studying, or interacting with friends or family, it’s time to seek help.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness website says the following behaviors should concern parents:

  • A sudden or persistent drop in school performance
  • Persistently aggressive behavior
  • Threats to self or others
  • Hallucinations, paranoia, or delusions
  • Acting very withdrawn, sad, or overly anxious
  • Extreme difficulty interacting with friends and/or siblings
  • Extreme changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Increased or persistent use of alcohol or drugs

If you notice these or other dramatic changes in your child’s behavior, make a mental health appointment for your child. Ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health professional. Or find a psychiatrist online at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry website: www.aacap.org. Click on the homepage Quick Link menu, “Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder” to locate a professional near you.

 

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