Adolescence can be a tough time for children and their parents. While it is a natural part of childhood development to test boundaries and explore autonomy, how can a parent tell when to call in a professional for help with an out-of-control child?
It can be difficult to tell what is normal development and what is beyond the pale, especially between 12 and 16 years of age. There is an established rise in difficulty in the parent-child relationship in the late middle school and early high school years, says Devin Byrd, Ph.D., dean of the College of Health Professions at South University.
“Around this age, children are developing abstract thought and autonomy,” says Byrd, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is an expert in child and adolescent psychology and development. “Children and teens are finding that their friends have opinions they may want to agree with, which can lead to a loss of authority for parents.”
While some level of boundary-testing is natural, Byrd says that there are signs that parents can look for to tell if their child needs help.
“Some children exhibit externalizing behavior: acting out in school, fighting, stealing and being less tolerant of others’ behavior. Some will internalize things. They will become anxious or depressed, withdraw from friends and family, and be less interested in activities and schoolwork,” he says.
Other signs could be bad grades, a change in peer groups and a tendency toward daring, high-risk activities. Sometimes these changes can be tied to a life-changing event, such as divorce or the death of a loved one. But the changes may also occur so gradually that a parent may not be able to recognize how bad things have become.
Byrd suggests talking to your child’s teachers and even your friends and family members to gauge whether a child has gone too far. Overall, don’t be afraid to ask for help. It is better to get help too early than too late.
Once you have decided to seek professional help, you may be able to find a referral for a therapist from your child’s doctor or from school or church officials.
Another option may be to go through your health insurance provider or workplace employee assistance program.
When you have chosen a therapist, Byrd offers a few suggestions for your first visit:
• Talk to your child about why you want to seek help, and be open about the process. Don’t think you can trick your child into therapy.
• Take any notes you have made about your child’s behavior, along with any drawings, poems or stories that the child has created.
• Go in with your child for the first visit. It will show your child that you are committed to the process. After that, the therapist may or may not invite you back for future sessions.
• Be ready to talk in an open, honest manner and be prepared to make changes alongside your child. Byrd says to remember that “you are not dropping your child off to be ‘fixed.’ You may well be part of the problem.”
Depending on the issues involved and the style of the therapist, the length of time your child may spend in therapy will vary. But in general, be prepared for a commitment of two to three months or longer.
Therapy can and does help adolescents through what can be a very difficult period in their lives, and you can demonstrate a healthy pattern for living by addressing issues with the help of professionals.
“As with any therapy, having a professional take an outside view at the situation can be quite beneficial,” says Byrd. “It is much easier for someone else to see what is going on with us than it is for us to see what is going on with ourselves.”