7 Signs Your Child Needs Psychological Support
A common question parents ask themselves is: Is my child’s behaviour normal? They wonder whether their child’s tendency to push boundaries is simply a rite of passage of childhood or there’s an underlying cause. When their pre-teen becomes moody and withdrawn, they debate whether it’s hormones or something more serious is going on.
It seems that parents are justified in questioning whether their children are OK. A landmark survey of 6300 Australian families including 3000 children aged 4 to 17 found that rates of depression were nearly double when children reported their own information compared to when parents did (Australian Government, 2015). It also found that the number of children seeking psychological support for mental health problems doubled between 1998 and 2015.
So, how can parents tell “regular” childhood behaviour from an emotional state that should be assessed? Educational and Developmental Psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien discusses seven signs parents should look out for.
1. A significant change in behaviour
While every child goes through short periods of behavioural changes when they’re tired at the end of the school term or they’re worried about an important sporting match, parents should take note if their child’s behaviour is significantly different from the norm for a more extended amount of time and they can’t pinpoint a reason for the change.
“If they’re normally pretty talkative and outgoing, but they start to withdraw and they don’t want to go into any details, that’s a sign that something may be going on emotionally,” says Dr Kimberley.
Does your child slam their bedroom door when you ask how their day went at school? Are they arguing with their siblings more often than usual? Do their friendships seem to be affected by their testiness?
“Lashing out or being more irritable than normal is a sign that a child might be frustrated and not able to express themselves,” explains Dr Kimberley. “You can try asking them to open up about how they’re feeling, but a psychologist can help if you’re not getting anywhere.”
3. Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
“Any significant changes in your child’s regular sleeping and eating habits that last more than a couple of weeks could signify an underlying issue that is worth investigating,” says Kimberley.
Your child might be having trouble sleeping and eating because they’re feeling worried, anxious or depressed. A psychologist can get your child to open up about how they’re feeling through techniques such as play therapy and other psychological interventions.
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4. Emotional changes
When children exhibit stronger emotions than they usually do, parents often wonder whether they’re just going through a phase or it might be the early signs of puberty. They’re unsure whether to wait and see or seek help.
“If your child is more teary or angrier than usual, you should pay attention,” says Kimberley. “There could be a lot going on under the surface. Don’t hesitate to seek help if it doesn’t pass.”
5. Boundary pushing
“Boundary pushing is often a sign of frustration and children may need help to find the words to express their desire for a new negotiation around rules,” explains Dr Kimberley. "It may be easier for them to open up to a psychologist than their parents."
You should seek psychological support if you’re constantly at loggerheads with your child, they’re ignoring you or pushing back whenever you ask them to do something, or they're engaging in any type of risky behaviour.
When your child reverts back to behaviours they had outgrown or starts acting like their younger sibling, they’re probably experiencing a regression.
“Regressions can include not wanting to go to school, bedwetting, needing more cuddling, crying more easily and asking for help with things they can usually do themselves,” says Kimberley. “If you can't pinpoint the trigger for the regression and it’s not going away, it’s probably time to reach out.”
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7. Isolating from friends
Is your child avoiding their friends and keeping to themselves more than usual? Try to have a chat with them to find out why, but seek help if it persists.
“It could be because they’re processing something emotionally or feeling self-conscious and like they have nothing to offer,” explains Kimberley. “Frustration and unhappiness make kids not want to play with their friends. Those things are important to unpack.”
Parents should trust their instincts when it comes to their children’s behaviour and emotions. If you feel your child isn’t acting like themselves and the out-of-character behaviour is persistent, seek professional advice.
Need help? We’re here for you
The Quirky Kid Clinic is a unique place for children and adolescents aged 2 to 18 years. We work from the child’s perspective to help them find their own solutions.
If your child is exhibiting some of these signs and you want to investigate, book a session with one of our experienced child psychologists.
View article references
Australian Government Department of Health. (2015). The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents. Australian Government Department of Health. https://www.health.gov.au/resources/publications/the-mental-health-of-children-and-adolescents