Marriage and Family Life

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Marriage and Family Life

Does Your Child Need Professional Help? You Can Do This.

What do you do when your kid breaks a bone? You go to the ER and get it fixed.

What do you do when your kid is depressed, disturbed, self-harming, anxious or out of control? The answer may not seem so obvious. It’s hard for parents to judge when a child crosses the line from “difficult” or “different” to “in need of professional help.”

And sometimes, even when a kid clearly needs help, it’s hard for parents to take that first step in finding it. Here are some common mental hurdles parents face when their child needs help—and some ways to get past them.

You don’t want your kid labeled forever. You’re afraid an official diagnosis will limit how the world sees your child, who is so much more than the sum of his difficulties.

But if your child is struggling, he’s probably already been labelled – as stubborn, wild, sulky, lazy, or worse. Getting a diagnosis is not a life sentence. It’s a plan of action, and ideally, it should open up possibilities for your child, rather than limit them.

You don’t want to admit you can’t handle it. It’s hard enough accepting the responsibilities of caring for another human being, but it can be shattering to admit it’s more than you can manage, especially in the case of your own child.

All parents, sooner or later, come up against a problem they can’t solve. This is where we recall that parenting is about self-sacrifice, and sometimes it’s our pride that needs sacrificing. Your child is more important than your self-image. Your job is to fight for him or her, and that includes enlisting help.

You’re afraid it will turn out to be your fault. Well, it might be, partly. That makes it an even more loving act of humility to seek help.

But in many cases, your child’s problems aren’t anyone’s fault. It’s just how life goes sometimes. And if you do end up facing your mistakes and learning to do better, how is that a bad thing?

You’re opposed to medicating a child. You’ve heard horror stories of meds turning kids into robots or psychopaths. You hate the idea of altering her basic personality or interfering with her developing brain.

But sometimes, the right medication can truly restore a suffering child to health, healing imbalances in brain chemistry in ways that no amount of nutritional or behavioral changes can do. It’s fine to seek alternatives to medication. Meds are not always necessary or useful. But try not to rule them out entirely. In some cases, medication can be used temporarily to give a child a foothold until other strategies become manageable.

You’re getting conflicting advice from family, friends and nosy strangers. There’s a real cacophony of medical opinions out there. Even if you can filter out the dangerously outlandish stuff, the sheer volume of information can be paralyzing.

So when you’re deciding whose advice to trust, consider the source. What qualifies her? Does he have experience and training? Is she trustworthy and sensible in other matters? Does he seem to truly understand what the problem is? Does she always give the same advice to everyone, no matter what the circumstances? Is he pushing you very hard and applying lots of guilt? Is she selling something? These questions matter.

You’re afraid some doctor will diagnose your faith as the problem. A legitimate fear. It’s reasonable to ask a new therapist what her approach is to religion. Any good therapist will respect what’s important to a family, including their religion, and will not seek to undermine your faith or your parental authority.

Note that a Catholic therapist may not automatically be the best therapist. It’s reasonable to seek a recommendation from your pastor or to look for Catholic professionals first, but don’t altogether rule out secular therapists.

It’s just not what you imagined your family would ever be like. You knew family life would have its ups and downs, but you never pictured yourself as “one of those families” filling out questionnaires about mental health, making an IEP with the guidance counselor, or even considering inpatient care.

Remember, trials are an opportunity to learn compassion. With the help of God, our struggles can soften our hearts for other families who are also suffering.

These are just a few of the obstacles we face when we start to consider finding professional help for our kids. It’s not an exhaustive list. And sometimes, we try as hard as we can to help our kids, and still find ourselves struggling with a series of bad doctors, bad advice, and bad diagnoses.

But the only real mistake we can make is to do nothing when there’s a problem. Many parents report a deep regret that they didn’t seek help sooner for their children. Early intervention is great, but even late intervention is better than no intervention. At very least, your child will see you fighting for her, and that’s worth a lot.

If your gut is telling you that something is wrong, that this child is different; if others are constantly hinting that your child isn’t doing well; if you find yourself making more and more accommodations and still losing ground; if you keep on having to reassure yourself that everything is okay, over and over again – then the time has come. Take that first step. Call your pediatrician and request an evaluation. It may not answer all your questions, but it will get you over the first hurdle.

So make the sign of the cross, turn your child’s health over to the Holy Spirit, and pick up the phone. You were born to do this. 

Simcha Fisher is a wife and mother of 10.  She is the author of The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning, as well as a freelance writer and speaker.  She and her family live in Marlborough, N.H.