Like many ailments, mental illness is far more treatable if it is caught early.
Unfortunately, children (young children in particular) often lack the knowledge and vocabulary needed to communicate the fact that something is deeply wrong.
Necessary therapy therefore gets delayed until adolescence or adulthood – long after unhealthy coping strategies have been formed.
The key to preventing needless challenges in life therefore lies in parents being able to detect the subtle signs that a child may need psychological/therapeutic assistance.
According to child psychologist Dr. Tali Shenfield, here are some of the signs to watch for:
1. Your child displays unusually obsessive behaviour surrounding leisure activities (usually video games). While most children will innately prioritize video games and other recreational activities over doing homework or going to bed on time, mentally healthy children generally respond to parental guidance (albeit with resistance). If, however, a child refuses to eat dinner, gets up in the morning on school days and immediately launches into his favourite activity, and reacts hysterically to any attempt to separate him from said activity, something is likely amiss. The child may be trying to address an unmet emotional need (such as the need for parental attention), trying to escape feelings of depression and low self-esteem, or have an undiagnosed developmental issue. Asperger’s Syndrome, for example, can cause fixated, obsessive behaviour.
2. Your child acts out frequently at school. A child acting out frequently at school—even if the child in question does not replicate the behaviour at home—is always a cause for concern. Children who act out frequently at school (either via direct rebellion, inattentiveness, or apathy) often either have an undiagnosed learning disability or they are reacting to turmoil in their lives. Children whose parents are going through a divorce, for example, will often act out at school while playing “peacemaker” at home.
Regardless of the exact cause of your child’s disruptive behaviour, seeking therapy is advised; the longer you wait, the more damage will be done to your child’s perception of school.
3. Your child is having an unusually terrible case of the “terrible twos.” Toddlers are notorious for being difficult. As these little people learn to walk and talk, they often feel the need to assert their independence in rebellious, inappropriate ways. They throw tantrums, become extremely picky, destroy things around the house, etc.
However, while some degree of disorderly behaviour is normal, if your child is acting out so severely that you and your partner feel as though you have been taken hostage by his demands, it’s time to seek therapy.
Why? Even if your child turns out to be completely neurotypical, it’s likely that you will develop unhelpful parenting habits in response to his behaviour (without outside perspective and assistance).
If these patterns become entrenched, they could pave the way for later behavioural problems, such as extreme teenage rebellion.
4. Your child exhibits an odd change in his eating habits. If your child suddenly begins to over-eat, consistently under-eat, or binge on food and then restrict intake (or, in the case of teenagers, attempt to induce vomiting), you absolutely must see a therapist as soon as possible. Eating disorders are among the most serious and life-threatening of all mental health conditions. (Note that while restrictive eating disorders primarily affect adolescent girls, the rate of anorexia and bulimia among boys is on the rise.)
While obesity has become somewhat normalized in our society, just like restrictive eating disorders are a sign of emotional distress, so too can the excessive intake of food be related to internal turmoil.
If you observe your child snacking frequently (particularly on “comfort foods”) when he’s stressed out by events at home or at school, you should address the issue with haste.
Obesity raises the risk of a number of serious health conditions and tends to have a negative impact on a child’s self-esteem.
The lower a child’s self-esteem is, the more susceptible he will become to comorbid mental health conditions.
5. Your child shows signs of substance use or abuse. While experimenting with drugs or alcohol is fairly typical for teenagers, if your child shows signs of consistent substance use or abuse (appearing intoxicated, breaking curfew, self-isolation, dramatic mood swings, theft, etc.), seek help immediately. Addiction causes long-term changes in the brain’s reward system that cannot easily be reversed, so the problem of substance abuse is one that needs to be addressed at once. Never write off a period of substance abuse that lasts weeks or months as simply being a “phase” or teenage rebellion; the risks of ignoring the issue are simply too great.
6. Your child seems lethargic and apathetic. If your child sleeps longer than he should each night and shows little interest in things he used to love, he could be suffering from depression. Contrary to popular belief, depression is not an “adult” disease; it can strike at any age. However, the younger a child is, the more difficult it will be for him to voice his feelings of sadness (or in many cases even properly identify those feelings). If your child’s lethargy is accompanied by poor concentration, displays of inappropriate anger, moodiness, and frequent complaints about mild ailments (headaches, stomach aches), depression is likely the culprit. In teenagers, rebellious or risky behaviours like stealing, drinking, smoking, promiscuity, and so on, are often an expression of underlying depression.
7. Your child is extremely anxious. Anxiety can be difficult to identify in children because most children display fears that are disproportionate to their situation, e.g. an extreme fear of the dark. However, while developing a few common fears is typical, a child displaying persistent generalized anxiety is neither normal nor healthy. If your child displays rigid perfectionism related to schoolwork or other pursuits or engages in phobic behaviour (being unable to leave the house or socialize due to anxiety), he needs to see a mental health professional. With early intervention, his tendency toward chronic anxiety may be surmountable; without aid, it will almost certainly develop into a full-blown anxiety disorder.
No matter what is causing your child’s distress, remember: There is help available.
The sooner you seek out the assistance of a reputable child psychologist or psychotherapist, the sooner your child will be able to return to living a full and happy life.