We all worry about our kids. Sometimes our worries are about whether they are developing in a healthy way. (Should they be talking by now?) Or about whether they are happy — we don’t like to see them sad or suffering. And sometimes we worry because a child’s behavior is causing problems for them — or for the whole family.
One of the challenges of parenting is knowing when a worry should prompt action. How do you know when to get help for a child who is struggling?
We know there is a lot of variation in how kids develop, and a broad range of behavior that’s typical and healthy as children grow up. All kids have rough patches here and there, so you don’t want to overreact. But when the behaviors you worry about are seriously interfering with your child’s ability to do things that are age-appropriate, or your family’s ability to be comfortable and nurturing, it’s important to get help.
Here are some things experts recommend you consider in deciding whether a child needs professional help.
What are the behaviors that are worrying you?
To evaluate your situation clearly, it’s important to observe and record specifically the things you are concerned about. Try to avoid generalizations like “He’s acting up all the time!” or “She’s uncooperative.” Think about specific behaviors, like “His teacher complains that he can’t wait for his turn to speak,” or “He gets upset when asked to stop one activity and start another,” or “She cries and is inconsolable when her mother leaves the room.”
How often does it happen?
If your child seems sad, is that occurring once a week, or most of the time? If they are having tantrums, when do they occur? How long do they last? Since many problematic behaviors — fears, impulsiveness, irritability, defiance, angst — are things that all children do sometimes, duration and intensity are often key to identifying a disorder.
Are these behaviors outside the typical range for your child’s age?
Kids naturally develop differently from one another, so it can be challenging to separate normal behavior from a serious problem. It’s often useful to share your observations with a professional who sees a lot of children, like a teacher, school psychologist or pediatrician. They can give you perspective on whether your child’s behaviors fall outside of the typical range for their age group. Are they more fearful, more disobedient, more prone to tantrums, than many other children? (See our Parents Guide to Developmental Milestones for children five and under.)
How long has it been going on?
Problematic behavior that’s been happening for a few days or even a few weeks is often a response to a stressful event. It might go away on its own over time. Behaviors that stick around for a month or more are more likely to need treatment.
How much does the problem interfere with your child’s life?
Perhaps the best way to tell whether your child needs help is whether their symptoms and behaviors are getting in the way of their normal life. Is it disrupting the family and causing conflict at home? Is it causing him difficulty at school or with friends? If a child is unable to do things they want or need to do, they may need help.
Return to Connect to Care for more information about getting kids help.