Understanding When Children Need Professional Help
Key Points
  • If may be difficult to admit that your child may need someone to talk to, but in the long run, it is what is best for the child. Therapy or counseling is simply a way to gain the skills and tools to handle or manage stress that seems to be overwhelming.
  • It is always a good idea to get some professional help from the onset of divorce for you and your children. Divorce is a new beginning but also a strange period of adjustment. A neutral third party can often help in stressful situations.
  • Adolescence is often a trying and difficult time to begin with, add in a divorce, the child may exhibit signs he or she is not coping well and should talk to someone.

All parents want to believe that their children can cope well with a divorce or breakup. Feeling guilty, parents usually start questioning their competency as a parent. The questions, "How do I know if my children are not coping with the stress?"and "How do I know if my child needs professional help?" are worries for most parents. To help you, we have tried to offer you some guidelines below. If you have serious doubts or worries about how your children are doing, seek professional help.

"How do I know if my children are not coping with the stress?"

We have listed below specific behaviors that will give you some idea about how your child is coping with stress. To understand how your child is doing, you must begin by remembering how your child handled past hurts and disappointments. This will give you a base line or reasonable idea about how fast your child bounces back from other disappointments and hurts. Remember that all children are different. Some children brood for months while others perk up in a couple of days. You should not use your own capacity to bounce back as a standard to compare your child with. Instead use your child’s history as a standard for what is reasonable to expect. Below are red flags that suggest that your child is not coping well with the breakup or, for that matter, any significant source of stress.

  • Your child looses his or her spontaneity. His or her speech is flat, displays poor eye contact, and appears sad.
  • When you contrast how your child bounced back from other hurts, you notice this time it is taking a lot longer for him or her to return to his ore her old self.
  • After a few days, your child should still want to participate in fun activities and socialize with friends. Any withdrawal should not last for more than a week.
  • Your child should continue to be an active participant in the family.
  • Your child should be able to express remorse or guilt when they have calmed down after misbehaving. After regaining composure, your child should be able to have some insight about his or her inappropriate behavior. Sometime your child should be able to laugh about how ridiculously he or she had behaved.
During this period of adjustment, your child should continue to show a need for emotional closeness and support from the family. Preteens and some teenagers may not want physical closeness, like a hug. You should not interpret this as a rejection or their not wanting to be close. Some children get uncomfortable with close physical contact. Your past experience with your child will tell you better how to interpret the repulsion. Your child still needs and should still respond to praise and encouragement. After a time, your child may need help if you can’t get a smile.

This list is not all-inclusive, but it should give you some idea about what to look for. Again, if you are worried, get professional help from a therapist that has experience with children and teens.

"How do You Know if Your Child Needs Professional Help?"

Not all children going through the breakup of the family need therapy. Unfortunately, some do need help. Knowing how or when to make the decision about getting your child professional help can be extremely important to your child’s overall welfare. There is less risk by being conservative and getting your child help too early than waiting for your child’s world to crumble. Maybe the guidelines below will help you make an informed decision.

  • Your child’s disturbing behavior persists beyond a month or two. When contrasting how they behaved before the breakup, they now appear angrier, more withdrawn, mouthy, or sad. Some children not coping well can act out by getting into trouble with the law or school.
  • Your child is not bouncing back to his or her old self.
  • Your child’s grades on the most recent progress report have significantly dropped.
  • Your child tells you about sexual or physical abuse.
  • Your efforts to help your child change their behavior have repeatedly failed. You may now be feeling more angry and frustrated because whatever you do does not seem to be working.
  • You suspect your child is drinking or abusing drugs. You begin to see changes in your child’s behavior that is common with kids who are abusing alcohol or drugs. A lack of interest in the family, a change in friends, a drop in school grades, a defensive attitude when asked about their behavior and how they spend their time, dramatic changes in dress, a loss of interest in social activities, a depressed or agitated mood or old friends no longer coming by the house are all signs of possible abuse.
  • Your child is no longer interested in doing what he or she once considered fun. He or she no longer wants to play sports, date, or hang out with old friends.

This list of reasons for seeking professional help is not exhaustive. You may notice other behaviors that raises you concern about your children’s adjustment. Deciding to seek professional help will depend on how much control you believe you have over what is happening to your children. If you have a game plan for helping your children and feel confident about your parenting, professional help may not be necessary. If instead, you are confused about what to do, you should speak with a therapist.

Asking for help is sometimes hard because you feel embarrassed about telling a stranger about your problems. It may seem like an admission of failure or you may be afraid that you will be told, "This is all your fault." Either way, trusting someone to help and not knowing what our children will say can be scary. That is why it is important to find someone who is qualified and makes you feel comfortable.

While deciding to get counseling for your son or daughter, the first thing you will probably do is to ask the children if they want to talk to someone. This sounds reasonable, but most of the time they will say, "No." After all, children are masters of avoidance and the prospect of talking to a stranger makes them nervous. They may complain about not knowing what to say or worry about what the counselor will say to their mom or dad. Now you feel bewildered. You may not know whether to respect you children’s wishes or force them to see a counselor. The answer to that question depends upon how badly your children are behaving. If you believe your children are not coping and their behavior is getting worse, they should have no choice but to see a counselor. It is up to the counselor to work with your children’s resistance and develop rapport.

Suggested Reading
Divorce Casualties: Protecting Your Children From Parental Alienation
Divorce Casualties: Protecting Your Children from Parental Alienation is the first-ever guide for divorced parents to help you understand the effects of your actions on your children.

Author: Douglas Darnall, Ph.D.

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