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Why Do Parents Contact Children’s Mental Health Services?

Although every situation is unique, there are some commonalities in the problems that parents call about.

You might be worried, for example, about your child’s behaviour: Perhaps he is refusing to do what you ask, and minor issues are escalating into arguments. Perhaps you’re worried about your child or teen’s emotional well-being, because there are signs of ongoing sadness, withdrawal, or anxiety. All of these problems contribute to stress in family relationships – between parent and child, and among siblings – and parents often seek help to reduce conflict in the home.

Parenting isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. The way that you were parented might not be the way you want to parent your own child, for various reasons. Sometimes there are snags when children transition from one developmental stage to another (especially as they enter the teen years) – and the parenting style that worked at one stage might not be effective in the new stage. Parents often contact CMHS with questions about which parenting approach would be most effective for their child.

Sometimes school is the major concern. Perhaps you’re worried about whether your child is coping with all the demands of school – doing what the teacher asks, getting her work done, and getting along with the other children. Perhaps your child’s teachers have complained about her behaviour or learning, even though she seems fine at home.

It’s important to get help for your child or teen if he or she is:

  • Constantly refusing to do what parents ask of him or her

  • Having frequent outbursts of anger

  • Engaging in risky behaviour

  • Threatening or hitting others

  • Feeling sad for several days at a time

  • Injuring himself or herself

  • Experiencing frequent mood swings

  • Worrying constantly

  • Avoiding family and friends

  • Losing interest in activities he or she used to enjoy

  • Having difficulty sleeping

  • Losing his or her appetite

  • Lacking motivation and energy

  • Drinking a lot or using drugs

  • Unable to pay attention and/or unable to sit still for any length of time

  • Getting lower marks at school

  • Saying unusual things or having unusual thoughts

  • Exhibiting unusual body movements

When is a Problem a Problem, and not just a Stage, Quirk, or Normal Up and Down?

Indeed, it is challenging for parents to decide whether their child’s problem is something that he will grow out of in awhile, or whether it could be a mental-health problem that should be assessed by a mental health professional. Parents are not alone in their tendency to find various other reasons to explain their child’s difficulty. Research has found that parents, teachers, and family doctors often miss signs of mental-health problems. Frequently, the child’s problems are “explained away” by referring to circumstances (e.g. being bullied), a characteristic of the child (e.g. he’s a normal active boy), or excessive worrying on the part of the parent.

Many people think that mental health problems in children are rare, when in fact research consistently has found that one out of five children in Ontario experience a mental health problem that is having a significant impact on his or her functioning. Despite this prevalence, the stigma associated with mental health disorders seems to persist. Stigma refers to embarrassment, shame, and fear, all of which get in the way of calling a mental health agency.

A child or teen’s mental health problem begins with warning signs relating to sadness, worry, noncompliance, impulsivity, inattentiveness, physical health problems (e.g. sleep problems), or poor school achievement. At this stage, the parent should watch the child or teen closely. For problems such as noncompliance and anxiety, it is recommended that the parent seek help if the symptoms are still present after 3 months. For symptoms of depression, however, parents should seek help much sooner – a couple of weeks if the teen or child is sad most of the day, and immediately if there is any indication of suicidal thinking or self-harm. Immediate help also is recommended for signs of eating disorders, substance abuse, and any problems that put your child’s physical well-being and safety at risk.

Mental health problems often begin with one or two symptoms that might not affect your child or teen’s life too much. There is a risk that over time, more symptoms might appear, or the symptoms might show up in other settings. Either of these changes suggests that the mental-health problem is becoming more intense. There is a growing likelihood that the mental-health problem now is impairing your child’s ability to function at her best at school, or to get along with her peers or family members.

Early assessment and treatment lead to better outcomes for children and teens. It is almost never the case that parents refer their child for a mental-health assessment too soon. A delay in seeking help often results in symptoms accumulating and further problems arising – in other words, the child’s situation becomes more complicated, discouraging, and more difficult to turn around.

Information for Parents about Mental Health Disorders in Children and Adolescents

It’s important to recognize that you, as the parent, don’t have the responsibility for diagnosing your child. In fact, diagnosis can be done only by some mental health professionals and medical doctors. You also don’t have to ensure that your child or teen is showing the symptoms of a specific disorder to request a mental-health assessment. It can be helpful, however, for all parents to improve their basic knowledge about mental-health problems in children, to allow them to get better at recognizing symptoms when they do occur.

This section looks at the symptoms associated with some of the mental-health disorders seen in children and/or adolescents.  Click on any of the below for more information:

Parents are their child’s best resource in addressing mental health.

Help for Parents

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