We tend to think that childhood is an idyllic stage, free of worries and problems. In fact, many parents tend to underestimate their children’s concerns and underestimate the negative emotions they experience, according to a study conducted at the University of California.
There is no doubt that childhood is a wonderful phase of life, but it can also be very difficult. Children are learning to make their way in the world, they face many challenges and change practically every day.
For this reason, it should not surprise us that 13% of adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 suffer from a diagnosed mental disorder, according to a Unicef report. This figure increases to 20.8% in Spain, which is the European country with the highest prevalence of child psychopathology.
Unfortunately, only 20% of these children and adolescents receive adequate treatment, according to the American Psychological Association, which has warned that we are experiencing a true epidemic of child mental health.
Unfortunately, many parents wait too long to ask for psychological help. Realizing that the child has broken an arm or a leg and needs urgent medical care is easy, but the psychological symptoms are more elusive, so parents can confuse them with “things of age” or think that “they’ll get over it”. However, the longer it takes for psychological help to arrive, the more the problem becomes rooted and the greater its ramifications.
When to take a child to the psychologist?
1. Regression to earlier stages of development
In many cases, regressive behavior is the first warning sign that the child needs the help of a psychologist. When little ones are under great stress, they often return to earlier stages of their development to feel more secure, so they lose the skills gained. It is common for them to wet the bed again, re-experience separation anxiety, nightmares return, or have more frequent and intense tantrums. These regressions to an earlier stage of development are a way of asking for help.
2. Changes in children’s habits
All children have growth spurts and go through periods when they eat more than usual or lose their appetite. However, if you notice big changes in their eating or sleeping habits that last more than two weeks, it’s important to try to understand what’s causing it. Difficulty falling asleep, nighttime awakenings, frequent nightmares, or night terrors may be an indicator of deeper psychological issues that are manifesting through these changes in their sleeping and eating patterns.
3. Appearance of fears and excessive worries
Childhood is not a worry-free period. It is normal for children to start worrying about the world around them, especially as they get older. Nowadays, it is normal for their thoughts to slip from time to time towards the pandemic or the war and to show some fear and insecurity. However, if these worries and fears are excessive, to the point of affecting their emotional balance or limiting their usual activities, it is necessary to take the child to a psychologist to prevent major problems from developing, such as an anxiety disorder or a phobia.
4. Social isolation
Some children and adolescents tend to be more withdrawn and introverted than others, so they enjoy solitude. However, if you notice that your child spends too much time alone, distances himself from his friends and rejects the approach of his peers, he may be going through a conflictive situation, suffering from depression or being a victim of bullying. In the case of depression, this isolation is usually accompanied by a marked disinterest in activities that they used to enjoy, for example, a child who used to like to go out and play, no longer wants to do so.
5. Increased irritability or aggressiveness
In children and adolescents, psychological disorders can manifest with symptoms such as agitation, irritability, and impulsive responses. In part, this is because the prefrontal areas of the brain involved in self-control have not yet fully developed, so children have a hard time suppressing their impulses. In addition, children and adolescents also experience greater frustration in the face of setbacks, which can manifest in destructive behaviors. In some cases they can even get to self-harm, an increasingly frequent problem at this stage of life to which they resort to relieve the emotional tension they experience-
6. School problems
If a child or adolescent begins to have problems at school, the cause must be found. Disorders such as ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, or learning difficulties are detected precisely when children begin to attend school. Also, if children are going through a difficult period, they are likely to have trouble keeping up with the class, so their academic performance will suffer. In other cases, those problems can be manifested through aggressive behaviors with teachers or classmates. Therefore, it is important that you keep abreast of your children’s behavior and school performance.
7. Somatic changes
Many times children do not find the right words to express what they feel or worry about, so they end up somatizing that psychological discomfort. Frequent headaches, alopecia areata, gastrointestinal or skin problems, as well as nervous tics are some of the ways in which emotional difficulties are expressed.
Psychologists warn that when in doubt, it is best to ask for specialized help. It is important that parents avoid catastrophic thinking and do not believe that if they take their children to a psychologist, others will give them a negative label that stigmatizes them.
Seeking psychological counseling does not necessarily mean that the child or adolescent has to undergo long-term mental health treatment. Many cases can be resolved with a few counseling sessions and/or family intervention. And in case they need it, there is nothing wrong with that. The real problem is not seeking help because that way the disorder could worsen.
Therefore, it is important that you stay on top of your children’s concerns. Support them, show an empathetic attitude and let them know that they can count on you when they have a problem. And if children need a psychologist, remember that “Therapy is not for crazy people. It is for those who want to take charge of their emotions”, as pointed out by professionals.
(2022) Estado Mundial de la Infancia 2021. In: UNICEF.
Lagattuta, K.H.; Sayfan, L. & Bamford, C (2012) Do you know how I feel? Parents underestimate worry and overestimate optimism compared to child self-report. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology; 113 (2): 211-232.
DeAngelis, T. (2004) Children’s mental health problems seen as ‘epidemic’. APA; 35(11): 38.