Helping Kids with Behavioral Health Needs

As a parent, you want the best for your children. But when your child is struggling with emotions or behavior, it can be difficult to talk about and even harder to know when it’s time to get medical care.

You’re not alone: One in six U.S. children between the ages of 2 to 8 has a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — and that means there are a great many parents, just like you, in need of resources. That’s why the experts at ProMedica’s Cullen Center are weighing in to answer a few frequently asked questions.

How do I know if my child needs help?

It’s important to remember that some degree of struggle (even acting out) is expected, and developmentally appropriate. So really, it’s more about how often it happens, how long it’s been happening and whether or not the behaviors are age-appropriate.

“Changes in behavior or routine — especially if they last for weeks or months and interfere with your child’s ability to engage in the activities of daily living — can be a sign that your child is struggling,” explains Adrienne Fricker-Elhai, PhD, director of The Cullen Center at ProMedica, an outpatient pediatric therapy center.

Many of those signs depend on your child’s age:

  • For younger children: Signs often appear as regression on their milestones. For instance, they were potty-trained but are wetting themselves again.
  • For school-aged children: Signs may appear as a lack of interest in activities they used to love, such as playing with friends.
  • For teenagers: Signs usually appear as heightened moodiness and irritability.

If you’re concerned your child’s behavior is more than a phase, it can be helpful to take notes about changes or patterns in behavior. When it comes time to talk with a physician or counselor, your notes will help you provide good examples and information.

A Word About COVID-19

This past year has been especially trying. Many children and teens felt increased anxiety and fear as they struggled to understand the changing world around them. And that means their parents have seen a natural increase in behavior problems that come with anxiety, such as temper tantrums or defiance. As we return to more normal daily activities, take note if your child’s behaviors don’t also return to what’s more typical for them.

What if my child has experienced trauma?

“We need to take away the stigma around asking for help in dealing with mental health, and also de-stigmatize the fact that people experience trauma and abuse,” says Dr. Fricker-Elhai. “It happens, and we need to let children and families know it’s OK to talk about it. The more you bury things, the more likely they are to come back to you in different and harmful ways.”

At the Cullen Center, therapists help children who have gone through trauma, abuse or loss by working together with families to create goals and provide evidence-informed treatment that leads to healing. Treatment plans will look different for each child. Therapists might help a young child through play, for example, while they can speak more directly to a teenager about what’s going on in their life.

Helping Every Child Thrive

Every child’s needs are unique. If you’ve noticed a change in your child’s behavior or mood lately and it doesn’t seem to be passing, consider talking with your child’s pediatrician to connect you to the right resources.

If your child has experienced a traumatic event, abuse or loss, you can call the Cullen Center directly and speak to a social worker to find out if their services are the right fit. No matter what your family has experienced, finding help can go a long way, both now and as your child grows up.

“I believe in hope always,” says Dr. Fricker-Elhai. “With help, your child will be able to heal and thrive.”

To learn more about The Cullen Center, visit ProMedica.org.

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