Frequently asked questions from parents concerned about their children
Caring for your child’s mental health, regardless of their age, is as essential as caring for their physical health. Like physical health, some mental health conditions are temporary and easy to treat, while others are more complex, chronic, or serious. Helping them get treatment early is an important part of the process to improve their mental health.
The following information has been developed to help alleviate confusion and reduce some common misunderstandings about anxiety, as it is very normal for parents to have questions about when and how to seek professional help.
Procrastinating and being forgetful is a perfectly normal part of growing up. All children including adolescents and young adults, have mood fluctuations and get sad, angry, or anxious. It is not normal if an unhealthy behavior or emotional state persists and begins to negatively impact their ability to function daily in one or more settings (self, family, school, or community). If this occurs, you should seek professional help.
There are common warning signs for anxiety disorders and mental health concerns in children and young adults such as long-lasting and severe mood swings, excessive fears and worries, dropping out or avoiding social and school activities, extreme behavioral changes, disturbing physical changes, self-harm, or an inability to concentrate. If your concerns are persistent and becoming more frequent, speak with your child’s teacher or an adult in a leadership role to better understand if the behaviors you are noticing are being observed by others.
If your child or young adult seems anxious or demonstrating behaviors such as significant aggression, the inability to self-soothe, having difficulty separating from you or another primary caregiver, or has been involved in or witnessed a traumatic event, you may want to seek advice from a mental health professional.
Experimenting with sex, drugs, or alcohol is not uncommon for adolescents or young adults. However, such risky or unhealthy behavior should not be ignored or accepted as normal. Such behavior may call for parental intervention as it may be an indication of a problematic social environment, difficulty coping with their emotions, or an underlying anxiety disorder or mental health condition requiring treatment from a professional.
Like medical doctors, therapists also have areas of expertise. The type of therapist recommended will depend on your child's anxiety symptoms, diagnosis, and recommended treatment plan. Although most therapists treat a wide variety of anxiety disorders, it’s important to ask potential therapists questions about their experience in working with children with similar issues. The first step is to schedule an in-person or phone consultation, where you can ask them as many questions as you feel necessary to determine if the therapist is the right fit for you and your child.
Based on scientific evidence, different therapies seem to work better for different types of anxiety disorders. Therapy is the most effective when it fits the child and the family's specific needs, goals, and objectives. The mental health provider will conduct a comprehensive evaluation of your child’s mental health and make a recommendation on what type of therapy might work best.
The therapist must be someone whom you and your child trust, respect, and like. If your child exhibits signs of wanting to continue therapy and speaks positively about their therapist, that’s a good sign. It’s also important that there are no language or cultural barriers, and that your therapist can schedule appointments when you and your child are available.
The process of starting therapy can be intimidating and even scary, especially for children. Before starting therapy, it’s important to get off on the right foot. Ask your therapist to talk with your child, regardless of their age, about what will happen on the first visit so they know what to expect. Most adolescents and young adults are reluctant to talk at first but feel immense relief after the first session and their worries about the unknown are being heard and addressed.
It is important to be prepared for your first visit. Your therapist may ask you or your child to take a few notes or write down a few questions ahead of time. For example, what do you and your child want to accomplish? What seems to make your child feel anxious? How does your child sleep at night? Is there something that seems to cause your child to feel pressure daily? Once the first visit is over, subsequent visits are typically much easier.
The length of time a child is in therapy de¬pends on the severity of symptoms, complexity of diagnosis, the type of treatment, and pace of im¬provement. It is important to routinely discuss the progress of your child’s treatment with the therapist as progress does not always move in a straight line. Your child may show quick im¬provement and then plateau or you may not see any improvement for a while and then see a sudden leap forward. The ultimate goal of improving a child’s mental health and well-being can take time and requires some patience.
Your child’s therapist will typically provide strategies and interventions designed as coping skills to be implemented at home, school, and other community settings. These coping skills should be utilized when necessary and as often as possible, especially at home during calm and stress-free times, to support you and your child’s goals through therapy.
What advice can I give my child about talking to friends, family, or teachers about going to therapy?
First, it is critically important to emphasize that there is no shame in seeking treatment for an anxiety disorder as mental health is as important as physical health. Secondly, every child from adolescence to young adulthood has the right to privacy which should be respected. Depending on your child’s age, it may be appropriate to ask how they feel about sharing information regarding their treatment. Often there are benefits to advising your child’s school if their emotional, behavioral, or mental health is impacting their ability to learn effectively, function, or behave appropriately.