When distress is something more

When is distress something more serious? When does it become something that warrants specialized help?

Everyone experiences distress from time to time. Children and teenagers can go through spells where they seem very upset. However, people who struggle with a mental health disorder tend to experience distress more regularly and more strongly. When should you think about going to a professional for guidance? Below are a few characteristics that can help in figuring out the extend of your child or adolescent’s distress. Note this is not intended to replace a specialized medical assessment. Always seek immediate help if a child engages in unsafe behavior or talks about wanting to hurt himself or someone else.

Duration of Distress

Typical distress: The upsetting symptoms should last a few hours or a few days. This may look like:

  • After a breakup, your adolescent cries for a few days.
  • He complains of a stomachache after eating too much ice cream.
  • She has a temper tantrum when she is tired.

Distress that may require professional guidance: The upsetting symptoms are persistent and last longer then a few days. This may look like:

  • Crying regularly and not knowing why
  • Complaining about frequent stomachaches or headaches, with no known medical, that keep them from attending school
  • Having frequent tantrums or being intensely irritable much of the time
  • Consistently not meeting milestones for his or her age, or you feel there could be a problem with their development

Settings Where Distress Takes Place

Typical distress: Difficulties take place in one setting such as school, home, with friends, or in the community. This may look like:

  • Before a test or presentation at school, your child gets the feeling of butterflies in her stomach.
  • Your son misbehaves at home, but follows the rules at school.

Distress that may require professional guidance: Difficulties are pervasive and take place in more than one setting. This may look like:

  • After a poor grade on an exam, your child feels worthless or helpless all the time (at school, at home and with friends) and does not engage in regular activities.
  • Your child doesn’t like to eat at parties and at school for fear of gaining weight.
  • He throws severe tantrums at home and at preschool.

When Distress Interferes With Normal Life

Typical distress: Generally, your child is doing well across most settings (at school, with friends and family relationships, at work if applicable). This may look like:

  • Your son feels betrayed by a friend; however, he continues to hang out with your family, and school performance stays the same.
  • Your daughter is usually a good student, but experienced a recent decline in grades due to a change in teachers.
  • Your son has a few friends in the neighborhood and one friend at school, but hangs out with family members.

Distress that may require professional guidance: Your child’s distress interferes with normal functioning, and symptoms get in the way of everyday life, such as school, friends, family relationships and work). This may look like:

  • Your daughter is spending more and more time alone, and avoiding social activities with friends or family.
  • Your son has lost interest in activities he used to enjoy doing.
  • Your daughter is not interested in playing with other children, or has difficulty making friends.
  • Your son is experimenting or engaging with alcohol and drug use, and is not engaged with family and friends, or shows a decrease in school or job achievement.

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