If your child had a broken leg, you would recognize it and take them somewhere for help.

So why, if your child has a behavioral or mental health concern, would you wait to ask for help?

In my experience as a mental health therapist, parents begin to wonder whether their child has a mental health issue long before they decide to have an evaluation. Most often, they wait until something really bad happens: maybe after a big fight, or after their child hurts themselves or others.

Sometimes the reason families wait to ask for help is because of a lack of education about mental health. If you don’t know the signs of a mental health issue, it’s hard to know that it may be time to find professional support.

The other reason parents hesitate is that there can be a stigma about mental health. You might know or be someone who believes that all behavioral issues can be solved through physical punishment. Some people view mental illness as an attitude problem. Others simply hope the problem goes away so they don’t have to “label” their child.

While some of the ideas above may be deeply rooted in each family’s set of values, they can make things worse for children and adults with mental illness. Physical punishment can’t take away a deep sadness or pain from your child, and stopping bad behavior won’t take away the underlying issue. If caregivers don’t take mental health seriously, they may be leaving the child to struggle alone.

Being diagnosed with a behavioral or mental health concern will not make your life or your child’s life worse – it simply gives a name to the struggles your child and family already experience, and helps you find support and an opportunity to heal and grow.

Not all “bad” behavior means a child has a mental health issue. Some bad behavior is just part of being a child and growing in maturity. But when you see signs of violence in your child toward themselves or others, or if the behavior listed below describes your child closely, it’s okay to find a professional and ask questions.

Signs of mental health concerns in younger children:

  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Excessive worrying
  • Sudden or intense fears
  • Unexplained problems with sleep or bed-wetting
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Difficulty concentrating or completing tasks
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Frequent complaints about physical problems or ailments
  • Persistent disobedient or aggressive behavior; fighting

Signs of mental health concerns in older children/adolescents:

  • Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Changes in school performance, failing grades
  • Inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical problems
  • Defying authority, skipping school, stealing, or damaging property
  • Intense fears
  • Long-lasting negative mood, often alone with poor appetite and thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger
  • Drastic changes in behavior or personality, mood swings (beyond what is considered normal adolescent development)
  • Excessive worrying
  • Withdrawal, avoiding family and friends
  • Sadness or hopelessness that lasts for more than two weeks
  • Self-harm

When a child or young adult sees or experiences a traumatic event like natural disaster, death of friends or family, life-changing illness, accident, violence, divorce, or any type of abuse, they may need support from a behavioral health therapist to process their emotions. The best way to get through trauma is to talk about it with someone trustworthy.

If you have concerns about your child, consider having him or her evaluated by a mental health professional. By doing so, you can find support to help your child live the best life possible. The experts at ChildServe may be able to help you find resources and answers. If you have questions, please call one of the locations below:

Iowa City: 319-351-5437  

Johnston: 515-727-8750

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ChildServe improves the health and well-being of over 4,200 children each year through specialized clinical, home, and community-based programs and services. We serve children with developmental delays, disabilities, acquired injuries, and other special healthcare needs.

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