In her latest Get Psyched Friday, psychologist Eleanor Mackey, PhD, discusses the importance of early identification and treatment for behavior health.
Recently, I’ve had a number of parents ask questions about when they should be concerned about a child’s behavior or mood. Children are, by nature, unpredictable, inflexible, moody, and often difficult to reason with. There is a wide variation in personality traits, too, so “normal” is a big category. However, a significant percentage of children experience mental illness – about 1 in 5 – at some point in their childhood. I always wonder how many of these cases could be avoided if parents were encouraged to address minor difficulties early on in order to prevent bigger problems from occurring down the road.
Getting ahead of behavioral health difficulties
The importance of early identification and treatment cannot be overstated. I have seen many children at Children’s National Health System come in for treatment before other parents, teachers, or family members thought there was a real “problem.” These are the kids who thrive in treatment and may avoid developing more significant issues in the future. Often these children have a particular difficulty, like being fearful, having trouble controlling their emotions, or having trouble getting enough sleep, that has begun to interfere with their (and their family’s) health and happiness.
So, how do you know when to bring your child in to consult with a professional?
The easy answer is whenever a child’s behavior or mood is making you or them unhappy or is negatively affecting life at home or at school. It cannot hurt to consult with a professional to determine if treatment may help.
How to identify and help inflexible children
A recent example that came up in a discussion with a parent was the question of inflexibility. For example, parents sometimes describe the inability to put their kids in weather-appropriate coats because the new and different coat can cause a huge meltdown. Other parents have told me how their inflexible child cannot pay attention to the first part of any class because it takes a long time just to adjust to the new topic.
While all kids can be relatively inflexible, if this trait doesn’t affect the day-to-day and just means that your child wears certain clothes on particular days of the week or you pack the same lunch every day, this might not be a problem. However, over time, it may get in the way of important activities or health.
Just like other traits, you can learn new ways of thinking and acting, but they have to be taught. This is what behavioral health professionals are trained to do and also to help parents look for signs that these traits or behaviors are becoming a greater cause for concern. Professionals can also help reassure parents and teachers about what is normal, and that is often invaluable for a parent’s peace of mind.
Behavioral health is essential to a child’s overall health
Lastly, parents often ask me if they risk stigmatizing or labeling their child by bringing them in to see a mental health professional. I don’t think that is the case at all and provides a great opportunity to teach new generations that brain health is the same as physical health and should be treated with the same respect.
You can tell your child you are taking them to someone who can teach them how to feel better when certain things happen. Sometimes psychologists are billed to kids as “feelings doctors” who can help when feelings get hurt.
If you show your child you are not afraid or embarrassed to help them when something is wrong with any part of their body or that it is important to be proactive about health to prevent problems, you are doing them a great service that will enable them to care for their own health needs throughout their lives.
At Children’s National, the Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health treats every patient as a unique individual. To make an appointment, call 202-476-4717.