Getting Professional Help
We can raise children who are well-prepared to bounce back from adversity, but we must never believe that resilience means invulnerability. The security that comes from unwavering and unconditional connections with caring adults, including and especially parents, is key to a teen’s resilience. But all people reach their limits sometimes. It is not a sign of weakness on our teens’ part, nor insufficient parenting on ours, when our children display human limitations. Sometimes we need to seek out professional help.
Be Alert for Possible Signs of Trouble
For all its pleasures and sometimes pain, adolescence is a time of heightened emotions. Our children may come to us silently with subtle signs only we recognize. Or they may express their feelings clearly and shout out to us what they need. But usually, we have to remain alert to quiet indications that our children are struggling.
No single sign should make you panic. They should, however, alert you to check in. Below are some of the signs that can be red flags, but remember no list is complete. You know your child best. If something feels uncomfortable or different about your tween or teen, trust those feelings and check in. When in doubt, seek professional help.
- Drug, alcohol, or cigarette use
- Slipping school performance
- Sleep problems (e.g. sleeping too much, or trouble falling or staying asleep)
- Returning to less mature behaviors (e.g. tantrums, needing instant gratification, being defensive)
- Irritability, outbursts
- Change in eating habits
- Loss of friends
- A new circle of friends with undesirable behaviors
- Radically new style of dress (e.g. suddenly dressing much more provocatively)
- Change in grooming habits
- Physical symptoms (e.g. belly pain, headaches, fatigue, chest pain, rapid weight loss or gain)
- Missing school because of frequent physical symptoms
Many people make the mistake of believing that childhood and adolescent depression looks the same as adult depression. We expect sleep disturbances, withdrawn behavior, and a lack of energy. We are not surprised when depression is associated with a change in appetite or grooming habits. At the least, we expect somebody who is depressed to be sad or hopeless. While these expectations hold for some children and adolescents, other teens experiencing depression may become irritable, get involved in conflicts at school, and may exhibit negativity or sulkiness. They may have excess energy and be filled with rage. They may not even express sadness.
For these reasons, many loving and attentive parents don’t notice the signs of adolescent depression in their teens because they are looking for signs that don’t exist. Too many parents miss irritability as a red flag. If we rely on the pop culture image of teenagers we’d think young people were moody most of the time. Many teenagers have phases of irritability with occasional outbursts. For these reasons, parents may grow to expect moodiness and run the danger of missing a signal of emotional turmoil or depression. This is a reason parents should check in with teachers and coaches and turn to a trusted professional when their instinct suggests their teen may be particularly irritable.
Sometimes anxiety is impossible to miss. Many tweens and teens worry far out of proportion to what we as parents would expect. Some have trouble calming themselves. They might have trouble sleeping or go blank on exams. Adolescents with high levels of anxiety can display catastrophic thinking – turning molehills into mountains, taking a very real situation and spinning with it until it takes on disastrous proportions. We recognize anxiety in our kids when they send clear signals to us.
Many children have a large investment in hiding their feelings from us, and often from the world. It is not always “cool” to have feelings. So, many young people will go to extremes to hide their feelings. Take notice if your child suddenly becomes “lazy” or reports that all the things they used to care about are “lame.” Sometimes it is far easier to say “I don’t care” than to tell the truth which is “I care so much it hurts.”
Be the Parent Your Child Will Talk With
It is not for you to have all the answers during challenging emotional times for your child. Your role is to be attentive to signals, remain unconditionally loving, unwaveringly present, and to guide your child towards the right professional support systems. Being attentive may be easier said than done. Even the best of us miss signals. Therefore, we have to rely on our children coming to us when they really need us.
Being the kind of parent that children choose to talk to is essential to many aspects of effective parenting — check out here for a deep dive on this.
Here we want to underscore two key points:
- Kids tolerate drama from their friends and hate it from their parents. They want you to be a sounding board, not to react. Do react when it means getting help for a real problem. That is precisely your job. But don’t overreact to every little thing, especially before giving the time and space to let your teen be heard and to have had the opportunity to consider and implement solutions themselves. It is your avoidance of drama over the little stuff (a bad grade, a first date, a fight with a friend, a peer caught using drugs) that positions you to react appropriately when you must dive in (issues that involve safety, and emotional challenges like depression and extreme anxiety). This also makes your reaction mean more.
- Our children want to protect us. If they believe that making us aware of their troubles or innermost feelings will generate undue stress for us, they may choose not to share. Our emotional health and well-being is one of the most important things teens care about. This flies in the face of popular (mistaken) notions about adolescents, but it is true. We need to help our children know that serving as their guide, through good and bad times, is important to us. We also need to take care of ourselves and have our own support systems. Really. Our kids will use us more when they know we are ok.
Setting the Stage for Healthy Help-Seeking
There are two things you can do to make it more likely that your child will be comfortable seeking help now and far into the future.
- Have your child give service to others. Contribution is one of seven critical elements, known as the 7 Cs, of building resilience in young people. The ultimate act of resilience is to turn to another human being and to seek help – to say “Brother/sister I need a hand.” The act of reaching out can literally make the difference to survival. The question is whether or not young people will feel comfortable reaching out. The answer lies largely in whether they believes there is pity in the help-seeking process. If they do, pride may get in the way. When young people give to others, they learn how good it feels to lift another person up. Therefore, when they need to be on the receiving end, they will understand that the other person is not giving out of a sense of pity, but of service. And, that the giver genuinely feels good about lending support.
- Model help-seeking. The more you talk out loud when you seek advice from others, the more it will become an accepted part of your family culture. This is not just about professional help; it includes turning to others to help solve problems. Doing so normalizes help-seeking. Plus, you are demonstrating that you are consistently stronger and wiser as a result.
When teens reach their limits, they may experience feeling of insecurity or of inadequacy. It is important that they do not also feel as though they are letting others down by not being able to handle their own problems. It is critical that you work through your own feelings of powerlessness or inadequacy about having a child who is struggling. This is not about you. If you experience it as such (as good parents often do!) you may unintentionally transmit that you are disappointed, stressed or angry. Your teens should know that you feel honored to be a source of strength for them now, just as they will be a source of support for others (and to you!) in the future.
This is challenging stuff. It’s normal to be stressed when your child is in pain. It is often said that parents are only as happy as their least happy child. Parenting is like having your heart on the outside of your body. This means it takes work to display the outer strength and resolve upon which your child can rely on. Get past the self-blame game. It can be helpful to remind yourself that you are rarely part of the problem and always part of the solution. This is true even if your teen is blaming you. It is easiest to turn on the person you know will always stand by you. People (of all ages) often take out their stress on the one person they know will stand by them no matter what.
Next, get past the disappointment that your child needs something more than you can give. Getting others involved is as an act of love, not of failure.
If your family has mixed feelings about seeking professional help, try your very best to resolve those conflicts before talking to your teen. Adolescents pick up on mixed emotions easily. They may feel ashamed or become resistant to seeking help. If you truly believe that seeking professional help is a positive action – an act of strength and self-awareness – your teen is more likely to see it that way.
Finally, ask your child’s pediatrician, school counselor, or clergyperson for recommendations about what kind of professional support to seek. Then, work to find someone who is likely to be the right match for your adolescent. When you trust the selected professional, that goes a long way in helping your teen believe they are trustworthy.
Preparing Your Tween or Teen
It can be tough to guide an adolescent to agree to seek professional guidance. They may feel ashamed that they can’t handle their own problems and worry that going for help confirms that they are “crazy,” “losing it,” or “weak.”
You are best positioned to help your child ease into this new and important relationship. Need guidance for having this conversation with your teens? The strategies provided in the slideshow below can help. And for an even deeper dive, see Preparing Your Tween or Teen to Seek Professional Guidance.
What Teens Need to Know About Seeking Professional Help
Perhaps the most essential thing teens need to know is that emotional discomfort is treatable. There are people who know how to support teens so they can feel better. And they deserve to feel better. Click through for more.
Seeking Help is an Act of Strength
Strong people know they’re capable of feeling better, deserve to feel better, and will take the required steps to improve their outlook. Use the word “deserve” instead of “need” when talking about getting help.
Asking for Guidance Shows Self-Awareness
Individuals who know themselves, can identify their feelings, and recognize when they need help often become the most successful and happy adults.
Professionals are Trained to Help
They work with teens because they want to help. They have gone through years of training to do so. They honor privacy and strive to support without judgment.
Professionals are Only Part of a Support System
Seeking professional help does not mean teens should give up other support systems. Family and friends remain the most important people in their lives.
Your Critical Role
After you have successfully guided your teens towards the professional support they deserve, you still remain the most important adult in their lives. You can trust that the problems will be handled by a well-trained professional. But nothing, absolutely nothing, replaces you. You are the reassuring voice that helps your children know they will get through it. That this too shall pass. Most vitally, they need to understand that they are not on this journey alone. You walk beside them and will for many years to come, far after this problem has resolved.
You can also help them to re-frame their (temporary) sense of hopelessness by eliminating the word “never” and adding the word “yet” to their thoughts. Adding yet further opens a world of possibilities and potential acceptance.
“I’ll never stop worrying!” becomes “I haven’t stopped worrying yet.”
“I’ll never make friends!” becomes “I haven’t made any friends yet.”
“I will never feel happy again!” becomes “I don’t feel happy yet.”
“I’ll never learn this stuff!” becomes “I haven’t learned this stuff yet.”
“I’ll never figure out what I want to do with my life!” becomes “I haven’t figured out what I want to do with my life yet.”
At the beginning of a new relationship with a helping professional, it’s common for teens to express, “Nobody will ever understand me.” Or, “Nobody will ever be able to help me.” Help them re-frame those thoughts to, “Nobody understands me yet” and “Nobody has been able to help me yet.” Remind them you will strive to understand and are committed to learning how to help them. And that you absolutely guarantee your presence, while you work together to find the person who gets them through this temporary challenge.
A Final Reassuring (Very Sincere) Word
There is almost nothing worse than seeing our children in pain. But try thinking about it this way. Would you want to raise a child who didn’t feel? Who didn’t care? Who just took life casually?
The fact that your child feels predicts a richer life. People who care deeply make the best parents, the finest spouses, the most faithful friends, and the most reliable co-workers and bosses.
The purpose of professional help is twofold. To deal with the present challenge. And, to teach your adolescent how to build on the strengths, and navigate the trials, that come with being blessed with feelings.
Congratulations on raising a young person with feelings. Let your child know how pleased you are that he or she feels deeply.