All kids can be overly emotional. All kids are defiant at times. It’s part of growing up. But there are some kids whose behavior and emotional reactions fall outside the boundaries of what anyone would describe as “normal”. Mommy radar knows the difference between a normal temper tantrum or meltdown and the kind with that unhinged quality that creeps into your dreams at night, insisting, “Something’s wrong!” If the anxiety and worry gnawing through your gut are becoming impossible to ignore, it’s time to do something. Here are some tips on how to start:
Stop being embarrassed.
No matter how aggravating or confusing your child’s behavior is, trust me — you’re not alone, and you’re not the first. According to the American Psychological Association, around 15 million children and teens in the U.S. alone have some type of diagnosable mental disorder.
Start with your pediatrician, and bring proof.
Pediatric specialists see hundreds of children and have a pretty good feel for what’s normal and what’s not. However, since children with emotional/behavioral disorders often save their worst behavior for home, it can be hard to convey the seriousness and intensity of the problem. This is where your smart phone comes in. Record some of the episodes that concern you. If it’s not feasible to hold the phone to get video, set it down somewhere and just let it record audio. I remember the first time our pediatrician saw my son’s behavior. It’s not that she didn’t believe me before that, but seeing it moved us from “watch” to “act” in about 30 seconds.
Educate yourself on childhood mental health disorders.
If you’re like me, it’s hard to believe there are enough kids like yours to have books on the subject…but there are. Two really good books to start with are Kids in the Syndrome Mix and Quirky Kids. Both give good overviews of different diagnoses and advise you on what to do if you see your child in one of them.
Educate yourself on medication before you see a specialist.
I’m not a doctor or pharmacist, so I’m can’t advise you on whether you should medicate your child. I would just encourage you to be open-minded. For some reason, we balk at giving our kids psych meds when we wouldn’t hesitate to treat them for any other chronic condition. Sure, as a society, our kids are probably overmedicated. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right choice for your child. It was for mine.
If you do choose medication, be prepared for some trial and error.
You probably won’t find the right med the first time. Psych meds aren’t like antibiotics that are proven to kill a certain class of bacteria. Some work for certain kids; some don’t. Some even make things worse. Sometimes one med in a certain class works while another doesn’t. Sometimes you need to try an entirely different class of meds. And sometimes the med that works the best causes side effects you can’t live with. I encourage you to work with a psychiatrist, even if you adore your pediatrician as much as I do. It gets pretty complex, especially as you step out of the commonplace meds for ADHD and anxiety/depression.
If your psychiatrist recommends a particular medication for your child, get an explanation of what things should look like if the medication is “working”.
When you’re raising a child with an emotional/behavioral disorder, your “barometer” is miscalibrated. You don’t really know what normal is anymore. By the time we realized just how big of a problem we had, our sense of “normal” hadn’t just changed; it had moved to the other side of the world without the courtesy of leaving a forwarding address. So find out from your doctor what you should and shouldn’t see while your child is on the medication, or else you could end up in my shoes: facing a psychiatrist who’s horrified at behaviors that you’re so used to you didn’t realize they shouldn’t be happening on that med.
Never forget that nobody is more of an expert on your child than you are.
It can be such a relief to finally find help that it’s tempting just to hand it over to the expert. But you’re the parent. You have to decide whether you are comfortable with a diagnosis or course of treatment. Ironically, this is hardest when you have a good relationship with a particular doctor; once you’ve worked together and established trust, it can be hard to reject their advice. But if they’re as good as you think they are, they’ll roll with it.
Plan for pubic scenes.
It’s crucial to know how you’re going to handle the nightmare scenarios. What are you going to do if you’re at the playground and your child’s evil twin makes an appearance, yelling at you, refusing to listen, being aggressive with other kids, etc.? What will you do when your preschooler refuses to get in the car, and you can’t get him there without putting the baby down? What, if anything, will you say to people watching? These things will happen, and it’s best to plan for them before they do.
Document, document, document.
I have my “Big Book of Everything” for my son. It contains achievement test scores, report cards, results of psychological testing, communication from doctors and teachers, etc. What it doesn’t contain is a record of all the meds we’ve tried, how well they worked, what the side effects were, etc. I’d give a lot to be able to go back and correct that lapse, so track that, too.
If your child’s behavior concerns you, the most important thing to do is act. If there really is a problem, it’s not going to just disappear. Getting your child help now will save a lot of pain down the road.