When it comes to children struggling with psychological, emotional, academic, and behavioural difficulties, early treatment is always the best approach. Unfortunately, not all children who need help will receive it right away – if at all. Some parents struggle with where to turn for help and may feel overwhelmed or unsure of how to get started.
Early Detection and Intervention
It is important for parents to be proactive when it comes to their children’s mental health. This means being on the lookout for any early signs or symptoms of potential problems and intervening as soon as possible. One reason for early intervention is so that any underlying issues can be addressed and limited in terms of impact. Another reason is so that any existing abilities and functioning of the child can be preserved. Every child is different, so a cookie-cutter approach isn’t helpful. Parents need to be responsive to their individual child’s needs. A child with ADHD, for instance, might be managing fairly well during their primary school years while many children are still developmentally immature and have difficulties with attention, regulating emotion, and can be energetic, hyperactive, and impulsive. However, as time passes these abilities should increase and skills of managing should become refined for the child to succeed within their peer relationships and academically at school. If a child is not managed their interpersonal skills will not only fail to progress, but will begin to diminish as they do not have opportunities to practise these if they become marginalised within their peer group due to their difficult behaviours.
Untangling A Web of Problems by Primary Intervention
Sticking with our ADHD example, there are a lot of potential consequences that can stem from it going untreated. One such consequence is the development of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. These secondary and tertiary problems can become the focus of treatment, and often, the underlying problem – ADHD – is neglected. As the web of problems becomes more and more entangled, being able to tease out these issues and address all of them properly becomes very difficult. This can begin to impact parenting approaches, and lead to further problems such as harsh parenting and oppositional and antisocial behaviours, including hanging out with the wrong crowd and abusing substances.
It's important to remember that treating only secondary or tertiary problems will not result in long term efficacy. The best approach is to seek treatment for the primary issue as soon as possible, and in turn all of the associated problems can likely be prevented.
The trajectory of a child's life who is untreated for an illness can be extremely distorted and derailed from any potential or possibility that they may have had. If we think of a child moving in a straight line towards the stars, their untreated illness causes them to move further and further away from that designation. Eventually, we have an adult with severe disturbances of mood, high levels of anxiety, no interpersonal or organisational skills, and a lot of work to be done to reach their potential - if this is possible at all.
Every Parent’s Dilemma
Parents often agonise over whether they should seek treatment for their children. They may worry that acknowledging any difficulties will only make matters worse. However, my experience has been that being able to acknowledge a difficulty is not only relieving for the person but also opens the door to understanding and being able to formulate management plans. These don't necessarily have to give labels, involve medications and be extensive - when getting in early, simple strategies can be very effective. Simple pieces of education and information can help enormously. Another concern that parents have is that of using medication and how this will have a longer-term impact on their child's developing brain. I understand these concerns, but I believe that if medication is used appropriately, together with multidisciplinary approaches and under close supervision, it can be a very effective tool in helping children get back on track. It is important to remember that each child is different and what works for one may not work for another. It is important to find the right team of professionals who can help guide you through this process.
When to Resort to Medication
Many people view medication as a last resort when it comes to treating illnesses. This is often because they are unaware of the detrimental effects that untreated illness can have on the brain's biology. When left untreated, illnesses can cause damage to the brain that can be difficult to reverse. This is why it is important to utilise medication appropriately to limit these impacts as far as possible.
Medication can also help a child manage their emotions so as to behave appropriately. This can allow them to improve their social skills and develop healthy self-confidence. A child’s brain is allowed to develop appropriately whilst having these positive experiences. It is important for parents to work with their children's doctors to find the best medication regimen for them. By doing so, you can help your child live a healthier and more productive life.
So, what does this mean for parents? It means that if you are concerned about your child's development or behaviour, don't wait - seek help. There are many resources available, both through your paediatrician or a child psychiatrist and other mental health professionals. The earlier you get help, the sooner your child can start to make progress and the less likely they are to struggle later in life.
Although it is impossible to predict with certainty how any given child will fare in the long run, I am confident that early intervention is key to setting them up for success. If you have concerns about your child or adolescent, don't hesitate to reach out for help. There are many resources available to you, and with the help of a qualified professional, your child can begin to address their difficulties and start down the path to a bright future.
Dr. Lisa Myers is a Child Adolescent psychiatrist and author, of When the Light Goes Out.