When a child presents with behavioral concerns, parents or caregivers sometimes wonder, “How do I know whether this is normal kid behavior or if it is something that my child needs counseling for?” That is a legitimate question because not all behavioral difficulties indicate a need for counseling. Furthermore, parents also sometimes wonder about how certain situations or scenarios may impact their child’s well-being, such as a loss or a traumatic event, and whether the situation indicates a need for their child to have counseling to work through it. What follows are several indicators that your child may benefit from counseling.
If Your Child Experienced a Traumatic Event
Trauma occurs when your child experiences an event which causes them to feel overwhelming fear or helplessness. Sometimes what an adult might perceive as traumatic for a child may not actually be traumatic because the way the child experienced the event may not have caused them overwhelming fear or helplessness. Adults need to be careful not to let their own reactions to an upsetting situation cause their child additional distress. On the other hand, children may sometimes be traumatized by an event that an adult would not perceive to necessarily be traumatic because adults are able to understand and process scenarios on a level children are not yet capable of. What follows are three situations which may potentially be traumatic for a child:
Physical abuse and sexual abuse both have the potential to be traumatic for a child. A child may also experience what’s now known as Developmental Trauma. Developmental Trauma occurs when a child experiences “low grade” abuse over an extended period of time—usually months or years. The isolated incidents of mistreatment they experienced did not necessarily result in trauma, but one incident after another eventually may build up to a traumatic experience.
It is also important to note that children do not necessarily perceive sexual abuse as traumatic in every scenario. Oftentimes, adults who hear of children being sexually abused can find it to be much more traumatic than the child actually perceives it to be. It all depends on the nature of the sexual abuse—sometimes it is scary and disturbing for the child while other times the child does not experience it as scary or disturbing. However, regardless of whether a child is “traumatized” by an abuse experience, they, and probably their parent or caregiver, would likely benefit from some degree of counseling to process what happened.
There are lots of different types of accidents than can be traumatic for a child:
- Car accidents
- Swimming or water accidents
- An animal attack
- Witnessing someone else get hurt
- Playground accidents
Children can perceive a sense of overwhelming fear or helplessness as a result of any of the above scenarios. Even a relatively minor “fender bender,” for example, could be extremely frightening for your child depending on the whether there were strong emotions displayed by the parties involved, whether there were injuries, and sometimes even whether there were lights and sirens from emergency vehicles. The above listed types of accidents do not always result in trauma for children, but if you notice a change in your child’s behavior following such an incident, they may benefit from at least an assessment by a child therapist.
Compromised Safety to Their Home
There are two primary things that could result in a compromised sense of safety for your child:
- Fire in the home
- Home invasion or break-in
A child’s home is considered their “safe space.” It is the location where they should be able to feel totally relaxed and at ease. A fire or a break-in could compromise this sense of safety for your child. Children who have experienced a compromised sense of safety as a result of one of these two scenarios will most likely start experiences some degree of sleep disturbance—perhaps difficulty falling or staying asleep, nightmares, or refusal to sleep alone—or other behavioral disturbance.
If Your Child Has Gone Through a Significant Transition
Transitions can be difficult for children to process and adjust to. Children thrive on routine and structure, so when a significant change occurs, it can feel to child as if their entire world has been upended. It is normal for children to sometimes need some additional support in understanding and processing a major transition. There are a few different types of transitions that could result in difficulties for your child:
- Move to a new town
- Changing schools
- Parental separation or divorce
Some children tend to go with the flow and adjust to major changes without much trouble while other children may have more difficulties. Even sibling sets may react to a transition in totally different ways with one of the children having a much more difficult time than the other child—this often happens in cases of parental separations or divorce. If your child has had a recent transition and they seem to really be struggling to adapt to the change, they may benefit from some counseling to help them process and adjust.
If Your Child Has Experienced a Significant Loss
Along the same lines of difficult transitions, losses can be very difficult for a child to understand and/or adjust to. It is important to note that children do tend to grieve much differently than adults, so it might not be readily apparent that they are indeed going through a grieving process when they experience a loss. The most significant types of losses for a child include, but are not limited to, loss of:
- A family member
- A beloved pet
- A friend—possibly due to the friend moving away
Just as most adults will experience a grieving process unique to them, children also have their own unique ways of grieving. Your child might not cry or appear sad, but they may start “acting out”—throwing tantrums, hitting or kicking, etc. They may also demonstrate regressive behaviors (e.g. having accidents after being potty trained), or they may have difficulties with sleep or eating. If your child has experienced a loss and they start having behavioral changes, they would likely benefit from counseling to help them process the loss and adapt to the changes the loss has brought to their life.
If Your Child is Having Behaviors that are Negatively Impacting Their Quality of Life
Some degree of negative behavior is normal for children. As they grow and develop, children will test boundaries and they may act out in negative ways. However, if your child is having behaviors that are interfering with their quality of life, they may benefit from counseling. Examples of behaviors which may interfere with a child’s quality of life include, but are not limited to:
- Excessive tantrums
- Threats to self or others
- Sleep Problems
If your child is experiencing any of the above behaviors, and the behaviors are resulting in problems at home, school, or daycare, it would be beneficial to pursue an evaluation with a child therapist. There might be an event, such as a trauma or loss, which is at the root of the upsetting behavior that a child therapist can help your child to process and resolve.
If Disagreements about Parenting are Causing Problems between You and Your Partner
Parenting conflicts are one of the most common issues that result in discord between partners. Even though your child’s behavior may be normal, there is no one-size-fits all parenting approach, and each partner will bring a different perspective regarding how certain behaviors or situations ought to be handled. If you and your partner are finding that your parenting styles are clashing, it would be beneficial to sit down with a child therapist to try to bridge this gap. Children need consistency, and they need for both parents to be on the same page in order to experience safety and stability. Worst case scenario is that your parenting conflicts escalate to the point of fights in front of your child which may ultimately result in a separation between you and your partner. It is best to seek support with parenting conflicts as early on as possible, so that your child is not negatively impacted.
To Schedule or Not to Schedule?
If you have additional questions about your child’s specific situation, it is completely reasonable to set up an initial consultation which a child therapist to obtain their perspective and recommendations on the situation. It is better to proactively seek help and support early on because when situations are left unaddressed, they tend to worsen and cause more significant problems in the long run. Feel free to comment on this article or send a private message if you have a scenario on which you would like some feedback.
Written By: Megan Clarke, MSW
Clinical Social Worker and Licensed Therapist