If you have found yourself questioning whether to reach out to a therapist about behavioral challenges with your young child, it's likely that you have considered the possibility that your child will likely to "grow out of" difficulties they are exhibiting. The problems that young children have are often not the big issues that people often think of when considering therapy. For instance, it is only when children are of elementary school age that they can be diagnosed with issues such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and disruptive behavior disorders. However, what makes therapy with pre-school aged children most rewarding is the opportunity to change the trajectory of their socio-emotional development so that they do not end up struggling with these issues and diagnoses at a later age. If you have ever wondered whether taking your preschooler to a child therapist may be the right decision, here are some important things to keep in mind.
1) Does your child have developmental delays or a pattern of uneven development? It is well known at this time that if a child has significant developmental delays, (i.e. in areas of play, socialization, communication, emotional regulation, etc.) early intervention is their greatest chance for making the gains necessary for the transition into elementary school. Some children may have a diagnosis of autism and need intensive early intervention. Other children just have an uneven developmental profile where they may be strong in certain areas but struggle with issues such as regulating their emotions and behaviors.Targeted support can help to remediate these issues before they become greater challenges.
2) Have pre-school personnel reported concerns about your child’s behaviors or social-emotional functioning? Pre-school teachers are exposed to a diverse range of children with varying areas of need. They are generally adept at recognizing when the presenting issues are those which need some additional support or intervention. It can be difficult and upsetting to receive feedback about your child struggling at such an early age. It is important to not jump to conclusions about your child’s difficulties being indicative of deficiencies in parenting. Our children come into this world with their own unique temperaments, sensory and learning profiles. A child who is acting out or alternatively not engaged enough with their environment may just need a closer look to understand his or her unique needs. Remember that our children’s behaviors are a form of communication and it is our job to figure out what need they are expressing to us when there are behaviors of concern.
3) Does your child seem to struggle with participating in typical settings where young children play together? Is he or she always on the periphery and unable to engage in any way with her peers? Does he refuse to separate from you and explore? Does she refuse to follow any direction or remain engaged in an activity for any length of time? There is of course a great deal of variability in how kids develop and wide range of acceptable differences. However, if you are consistently and over the course of months seeing that your child struggles in a way that stands out from his or her peers, seeking out a professional’s input can help to clarify the underlying reasons early on before they become more problematic.
4) Do you find that parenting your child takes up all of your energy and resources on a daily basis? Parenting is no doubt challenging and consumes our minds, hearts, energy, and time as we struggle to find balance in our lives. If you are unable to make any room for self-care in your life or are faced with marital or work difficulties as a result of a particular child’s needs, then it may be helpful to seek out the support of a therapist to clarify what may be happening with your child and bring some balance back into your life. Our children’s well-being should be our number one priority but if that is happening at the expense of your own well-being and it is not just a transient phase due to some developmental leaps or transitions, it’s time to evaluate what is causing this level of difficulty.
5) Last but certainly not least, has your family or child has experienced a major life stressor?
This is arguably one of the more straight forward reasons why it is helpful and maybe even necessary to seek the support of a mental health provider. Events like parental separation/divorce, a death of someone close to the child, or any traumatic incident are all situations that warrant a closer look at how your child is coping and whether they will need any form of therapeutic support.
If you decide that you want to seek out a therapist for your child, be sure to ask whether they specialize in working with children and particularly very young children. It takes a completely different set of skills to work with an adolescent versus a 5 year old. The “work” itself is play-based and must have a high degree of consistent parental involvement. Parents play a crucial role and must be partners in the process of better understanding and supporting their child’s needs.