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What to Look for

Among all the dilemmas facing a parent of a child with emotional disorders or behavioral problems, the first question-whether the child's behavior is sufficiently different to require a comprehensive psychological evaluation by professionals-may be the most troublesome of all. Even when a child exhibits negative behaviors, members of a family may not all agree on whether the behaviors are serious. For instance, children who have frequent, severe temper outbursts or who destroy toys may appear to have a serious problem to some parents, while others see the same behavior as asserting independence or showing leadership skills.

Every child faces emotional difficulties from time-to-time, as do adults. Feelings of sadness or loss and extremes of emotions are part of growing up. Conflicts between parents and children are also inevitable as children struggle from the "terrible two' s" through adolescence to develop their own identities. These are normal changes in behavior due to growth and development. Such problems can be more common in times of change for the family - the death of a grandparent or family member, a new child, a move to the city. Generally, these kinds of problems tend to fade on their own or with limited visits to a counselor or other mental health professional as children adjust to the changes in their lives. At times, however, some children may develop inappropriate emotional and behavioral responses to situations in their lives that persist over time.

The realization that a child's behavior needs professional attention can be painful or frightening to parents who have tried to support their child, or it may be accepted and internalized as a personal failure by the parent.

Many parents are afraid that their child may be inappropriately labeled, and point out that the array of diagnoses, medicines, and therapies have not been agreed upon by all specialists. Still others become alarmed after obtaining an assessment for their child only to discover that the evaluator believed emotional disturbances originate in family dynamics and that "parenting skills" classes were the best way to address the problem. While many parents will concede that they may need to learn new behavior management or communication techniques in order to provide a consistent and rewarding environment for their child, many also express deep anger about the blame that continues to be placed on families with children who behave differently.

Before seeking a formal mental health assessment, parents may have tried to help their child by talking to friends, relatives or the child's school. They may try to discover whether others see the same problems, and to learn what others suggest they might try. Parents may feel that they also need help in learning better ways of supporting the child through difficult times, and may seek classes to help them sharpen behavior management skills or conflict resolution skills. Modifications in a child's routine at home or school may help to establish whether some fine tuning" will improve performance or self-esteem. If the problems a child is experiencing are seen as fairly severe, and are unresponsive to interventions at school, in the community or at home, an assessment by a competent mental health professional is probably in order. An assessment will provide information which, when combined with what parents know, may lead to a diagnosis of an emotional or a behavioral disorder, and a recommended treatment program.

So when is that magical moment when parents should recognize their child's behavior has surpassed the boundary of what all children do and has become sufficiently alarming to warrant a formal assessment? There probably isn't one. It is often a gradual awareness that a child's emotional or behavioral development just isn't where it should be that sends most parents on a quest for answers.

Perhaps the most important question of all for parents of school age children to consider is, "How much distress is your child's problems causing you, the child, or other members of the family?" If a child's aggressive or argumentative behaviors, or sad or withdrawn behaviors are seen as a problem for a child or members of his or her family, then the child' s behaviors are a problem that should be looked at, regardless of their severity.

While there is no substitute for parental knowledge, certain guidelines are also available to help families make the decision to seek an evaluation. In Help for Your Child, A Parents Guide to Mental Health Services, Sharon Brehm suggests three criteria to help in deciding whether a child's behavior is normal or a sign that the youngster needs help:

  • The Duration of a Troublesome Behavior - Does it just go on and on with no sign that the child is going to outgrow it and progress to a new stage?

  • The Intensity of a Behavior - For instance, while temper tantrums are normal in almost all children, some tantrums could be so extreme that they are frightening to parents and suggest that some specific intervention might be necessary. Parents should pay particular attention to behaviors such as feelings of despair or hopelessness; lack of interest in family, friends, school or other activities once considered enjoyable; or behaviors which are dangerous to the child or to others.

  • The Age of the Child - While some behavior might be quite normal for a child of two, observation of other children of the youngster's age may lead to the conclusion that the behavior in question is not quite right for a five year old. Not all children reach the same emotional milestones at the same age, but extreme deviations from age-appropriate behaviors may well be cause for concern.

Attempts at self-injury or threats of suicide, violent behaviors, or severe withdrawal that creates an inability to carry on normal routines must be regarded as emergencies for which parents should seek immediate attention, through a mental health or medical clinic, mental health hotline, or crisis center.