September 2012

Medical: Does My Child Need Help?

Author: Rebecca Edwards


Imagine a 14-year-old girl named Julia. She is smart, attractive and well loved by her family. To you and me, Julia’s life is just beginning. Yet Julia feels like it is ending. She lacks self-confidence with her peers and is self-conscious about her body. In social situations, she experiences anxiety. She begins breathing hard, her heart rate accelerates and she feels an overwhelming urge to run out of the room. She starts smoking pot to help her feel relaxed and make friends. She gets a boyfriend but doesn’t have the interpersonal skills to navigate through the relationship. She becomes depressed and now endures long, uncontrollable crying spells. She smokes more pot to cope, but it makes her have the munchies. She worries about gaining weight. So Julia gets in the shower and purges to the point that she can now purge on command. She is desperate. She needs help.

Julia’s case begs the question, “Could this be my child?”
Current statistics give us insight into Julia and other youths like her. The 2011 South Carolina Youth Risk Survey reports that by age 18, roughly 80 percent of youths have used alcohol, 14 percent have tried inhalants, stimulants or hallucinogens, 44 percent have used marijuana and 8 percent have tried cocaine. Also, 11 percent of youths reported a serious suicide attempt. According to Joy Lauerer, MSN, PMHCNS, BC, a child and adolescent psychiatric advance practice nurse at Bloom Within Counseling, the stats for South Carolina are alarming and stresses the need for early intervention.

“We know that kids are involved in risky behaviors, and parents should be aware that there are effective strategies to keep kids safe,” Lauerer said.

Myra Gasser, M.Ed., LPCI, RYT, a licensed counselor at Bloom Within Counseling, believes parents can take steps to address these staggering numbers proactively. “If parents will be open to an evaluation, they often learn there is an underlining cause for their child’s symptoms. A therapist is knowledgeable of the criteria for all mental health diagnoses and trained to determine if issues are related to normal adolescent social and emotional development or something more significant like clinical depression, anxiety, or ADHD,” Gasser said. “After evaluation and assessment, parents need to understand that there are many approaches to treatment, and all treatments should be evidence-based. Therapy should begin with treatment goals set by the therapist and family.”

Gasser, who believes in holistic as well as traditional therapy methods, encourages parents to be responsive to their child’s psychological development. “There is often a stigma that mental health therapy is only for serious disorders. But therapy is helpful for navigating the challenges and stressors that children often face in today’s culture, and it alleviates problems before they become more serious,” Gasser said.

Ten indicators that your child may need help:
-Learning or attention problems such as ADHD
-Episodes of sadness, tearfulness or depression
-Social withdrawal or isolation
-Being the victim of bullying or bullying others
-Mood swings
-Problems in transitions following separation, divorce or relocation
-Sudden changes in appetite
-Development of or an increase in physical complaints such as headache, stomachache or not feeling well despite a normal physical exam by your doctor
-A significant drop in grades, particularly if your child normally maintains high grades
-Insomnia or increased sleepiness

“Therapy takes on many forms. Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, involves a professionally trained therapist helping a patient deal with stress and other mental challenges,” Gasser explained. “For my graduate thesis, an oral history book about the modern teen, I spent over two years following several teens throughout their high school careers. These youths, like Julia, experienced anxiety and admitted to drug use and bulimia as well as other concerning behaviors such as cutting (or self-inflicting pain) and sex with multiple partners. Each interviewee reported that the most positive coping mechanism was talking. Some consulted their peers, some their parents, some their teachers or coaches. But the ones who spent quality, one-on-one time with a therapist benefitted the greatest, because they were able to establish trust, support and guidance.

Therapy also has many configurations. One-on-one consultation is individual therapy. A therapist may also recommend family therapy or may bring together several people who are dealing with similar issues for group therapy. Gasser is a proponent of family therapy when appropriate. “Family therapy can offer a supportive environment to foster better communication. It can bring hidden issues to the surface and the adolescent may feel safer sharing in a setting where the therapist becomes a neutral third party,” she said.

As people, we worry about Julia. As parents we stress about our children. And as a collective whole we can help our youths. By being aware of our children’s social and mental development we can keep a pulse on their mental stability. Seeking therapy is not an admission of defeat as a parent and will not label your child as “crazy” or “out of control.” The fact is, the number of youths experiencing social pressures and being exposed to very mature issues is ever increasing. However, the number of parents asking, “Does my child need help?” is not.

Mental health professionals nationwide are encouraging parents to take a long and loving look at their children. Preemptive diagnosis and treatment is vital to a happy, healthy home. As for Julia, she and her parents are working with a therapist, and she’s on her road to recovery.

Bloom Within Counseling is located at the Southern Lifestyle Center, 7 Office Way, Suite 207 on Hilton Head Island. For more information, visit bloomwithincounseling.com.

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