Sabrina Blakely noticed her son’s intense anxiety after a misunderstanding in the bathroom. Blakely (who asked to remain anonymous) found her son, then 4, trying to flush essentially a whole roll of toilet paper.
“My reaction wasn’t the greatest,” the Frisco mom admits. “And I made a comment that he was going to flood the bathroom.”
To a young child, the word flood was terrifying. In fact, Blakely’s son quit using that bathroom altogether. “He thought he would die by drowning in there,” she said. “And a small ceiling crack made him think our roof was going to collapse. There was nothing I could say that would calm him down.”
That’s why Blakely, who had seen a counselor for years, decided to take her son to therapy. While his concerns were unreasonable, they were very real to him.
How to Recognize Your Child Might Need Therapy
Anxiety, depression, anger problems, grief: these diagnoses and conditions apply to children, even if the situations they face are different from grown-up problems.
“Thoughts are often at the crux of the struggle” that brings someone to counseling, says
Kyrstin Jimenez, Ph.D., of Clear Life Counseling & Testing in Frisco. “Kids might face a similar situation with a bully or feeling left out, but it’s their thoughts that inform how they feel about it. If kids think, I have other friends and activities; I can get through it, that’s one thing. But when a child thinks, I’m not lovable if those people don’t like me, you have a problem.”
The situation that might result in mistaken beliefs, as therapists call them, can be in any realm: friendships, behavior, a parent-child relationship or academic struggles, for example. Another child’s problems may involve a big change, such as a divorce or the death of a loved one (including a pet).
Many parents try to help their children deal with a troubling circumstance on their own, but that doesn’t always succeed.
Parents may be too close to the problem, or they could be part of it. And therapists are specially trained to diagnose and work with children. Plus, some kids just do better with an outside individual. “I think it’s really good for kiddos to have a trusted adult who is not their parent to talk about hard stuff with,” says Blakely, noting that the therapists at Connect to Thrive in Plano have helped her son and daughter (who has depression) with everything from social skills and getting along at home to general emotional well-being.
Mental health problems in children have become more common recently. Isolation from friends, virtual school, perhaps the illness or even the death of a family member—those things take a toll.
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an increase in children and adolescents diagnosed with anxiety or depression, according to Becky Taylor, Ph.D., a professor of counseling in the College of Education at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Taylor points to a study that showed a 24% increase in emergency room visits for mental health crises in children ages 5–11 in the past year, and a 31% increase for those ages 12–17. “The problem is magnified when you consider that these [situations], unlike an accident, did not occur suddenly,” Taylor notes, “but were developing for a while before someone took notice and recognized the need for help.”
A general guideline for seeking professional help is when there is a significant difference from how a child typically acts. “If you can’t figure it out or you need support in dealing with the situation, you want to take them to counseling,” Jimenez explains. “If they’re having accidents, crying all the time, isolating and shutting down, even in adolescents—anytime there’s a big shift in demeanor, or when what you’ve tried isn’t working, look into counseling.”
How Children’s Therapy Works
For young children, from toddlerhood up to age 10 or 12, play therapy is standard. Play therapy doesn’t require children to verbalize; instead, toys and play are used to understand what’s happening, unravel a child’s emotions and teach coping mechanisms. While parents or other lay people may see simply play, trained counselors will see metaphors, patterns and emotional expressions that children are communicating.
Older children, up to age 17, may take part in activity therapy, using items such as puzzles or art supplies to engage with the therapist and work on areas of concern.
Sessions are often limited to the child and the therapist; if you ask what happened, “don’t be surprised if the child says, ‘We just played,’ or, ‘Nothing much,’ because children often do not understand the therapeutic process,” Taylor says.
But parents will get information and insight. “The parent should work with a therapist who includes the parent, whether through consultation, in-session training where the parent works with the child through coaching by the therapist, or family therapy,” Taylor adds. “Depending on the severity of the issues, it may take several months or longer to see progress, but progress is often amplified when parents take part in the therapy process.”
That’s how Blakely approaches her children’s treatment. In addition to the kids’ own sessions, she meets with their counselors and occasionally sits in on sessions when asked. Blakely’s kids have graduated from therapy and returned multiple times as they grow and encounter new situations, and she says the benefits for the entire family are tangible. “When you’re able to work through things and come to a good place, there’s a lot more harmony.”
There are a variety of symptoms children might display when they’re not in a good place emotionally. Here are a few to know:
- Social withdrawal
- Drop in grades
- Changes in appetite (more or less)
- Changes in sleep (more or less)
- Trouble concentrating
This is far from a complete list. If you sense something is wrong, talk to a counselor with training and experience in your child’s age range, or your pediatrician.
Image courtesy of iStock.