As parents, there is no one who we love more than our children. From the moment they are born, our mission becomes to do whatever it takes to make sure that our children have happy, healthy lives. This can involve going to great lengths to help our children when they are sick or in pain. When our child is sick and not getting well, we are quick to seek help from medical professionals and rightly so. But for some reason that fast action does not translate as directly when it comes to our children’s mental health. Why is it that it is okay to ask for help for a physical health problem but when it comes to our child’s mental health, we are supposed to have all of the answers?
As a child and adolescent mental health specialist, I have found that people often make the mistaken assumption that parents are the problem, which could not be farther from the truth. The parents who come through my door are heroes. They have already done so much to get it right. Unlike some parents who are struggling on their own, the parents who come to me for treatment have taken the important action of seeking professional help when they have reached their limits. They have put aside the myth that they must have all of the answers when it comes to their child’s emotional or behavioral problems.
Really, our children’s mental health is no different than their physical health. If our child has a virus, we take them to the pediatrician to be checked and to receive advice on how to help them get well. Similarly, if our child is struggling with peers or in school, we can do the same by taking them to a mental health professional. Research has shown that seeking treatment for our children not only vastly accelerates the pace of recovery from mental health problems but it also prevents more serious problems down the road.
The majority of mental health problems that adults experience can be traced back to untreated mental health problems in childhood and adolescence. It is a myth that children are resilient and will grow out of their problems. Just like leaving your child’s ear infection unchecked can have serious negative consequences, allowing your child to endure bullying without the aid of professional help could also lead to lasting problems.
To the parents who have taken that crucial step and brought their child to my office door, you have already conquered half of the battle to solving your child’s mental health problem. You are serving as a role model for your child by demonstrating that it is okay to seek help from professionals when you are struggling. For those who are hesitant to do so, I encourage you to think about what you would do if your child had a serious stomach bug and suggest that you take the same action if your child is experiencing anxiety, depression, inattention, bullying, or other changes in behavior that are negatively impacting your family or your child’s day to day life.
As a parent, you are the best expert on your child and you should always let your expertise as a parent guide your decisions for your child. This should include listening to yourself when your expertise tells you that you have reached your limits and need help. By seeking help you are not only putting your child first, you are also putting your child on a path of lifelong mental health and well being. There is no greater gift than that.
Dr. Kate Brody Nooner is a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at UNCW. She also holds an adjunct appointment at Duke University and is the principal investigator of NIH funded grants aimed at reducing child and adolescent trauma and preventing alcoholism.