All children have problem behaviors. It’s part of growing up. But a common dilemma parents face is knowing the difference between typical behavior problems that will pass on their own versus the problems that would benefit from professional intervention.
While parents are in a perfect position to identify when extra help may be warranted, they’re not good at problem identification for several reasons:
- Parents tend to normalize problematic behavior. They want to believe everything is okay, so they’re often reluctant to acknowledge things have reached a tipping point for their child. They might compare their child to others whose behaviors are more extreme, which can lead to a false sense of reassurance (“Sure, he has meltdowns, but they’re not as bad as Jimmy’s down the street…”).
- Parents have a propensity to blame themselves when their child struggles, which is a tough pill to swallow. It’s easier to downplay the problem than to risk the threat to their own self-esteem, even though many of the mental health issues that children commonly experience are not their fault.
- A third barrier to recognizing the need for help is the stigma associated with mental health issues. Although this is slowly improving in our society, the stigma around getting help remains pervasive and, unfortunately, leads to significant delays in seeking needed care.
With all these barriers to identifying a need for intervention, it can be challenging for parents to know when to pursue help for problem behaviors. As a preliminary self-assessment, here are some simple guidelines to help you decide whether your child’s problem behaviors warrant seeking professional help:
Ask yourself if the problem you’re seeing occurs frequently, persists longer than a few days, and causes interference. If the behavior makes it difficult for your child to keep up in school, to get along with friends, or to navigate family relationships at home, intervention sooner rather than later will help avoid unnecessary distress. The longer you wait, the bigger the problem may grow, and the stronger the intervention will need to be down the line.
If you’re struggling between seeking help and waiting it out, you may want to start with a consultation with a child mental health professional. Scheduling a phone call or an intake session will give you the opportunity to discuss your concerns and get feedback on what your next steps, if any, should be.
If you feel as if seeking help for your child means you’ve done something wrong, remind yourself that getting him needed help is the best thing you can do as a parent. If your child had trouble seeing, you wouldn’t hesitate to get him glasses. If he broke a leg, you’d take him to a doctor to get it set. Tending to his mental health is the most compassionate and supportive thing you can do, and it will set him up to be a more informed self-advocate for his mental health needs in the future.
Use the statements below to do a preliminary assessment of your child’s problem behaviors. If you find your child is “off-track,” seek professional help.
- On-track problem behaviors happen sometimes
- On-track problem behaviors go away after a while
- On-track problem behaviors don’t get in the way of your child’s life or your life
- Off-track problem behaviors happen a lot of the time
- Off-track problem behaviors don’t go away for a long time
- Off-track problem behaviors get in the way of your child’s life or your life
Caroline Segal is a psychotherapist and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Sasco River Center in CT. She specializes in the treatment of child and adolescent anxiety, depression, trauma, and behavioral issues.