Is your kid going through normal growing pains or is it something more serious? Learn to read the signs and decide if your child needs a therapist or psychologist

Recently your outgoing, sweet little boy has become quiet, withdrawn and sullen. You’re worried about him, and you miss the cheerful, talkative child he was a few months ago. Is it all just the usual growing-up stuff or is it something else?

Behavioral changes are normal for children, especially when there’s upheaval in their lives. But sometimes your kids may need help. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 13 to 20 percent of kids living in the United States suffer from some kind of mental health condition in a given year. In fact, research published in the New England Journal of Medicine this year found that the number of American kids and teens treated for mental health issues has gone up about 50 percent in the past two decades. 

Recognize the Signs 

Some children, especially younger ones, can’t verbalize what’s wrong. But they may act in a way that alerts you to what’s going on inside, according to Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist with a private practice in Princeton and the co-author of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. 

Changes in behavior can happen at any time for any reason. Kids can suffer from “adult” conditions like anxiety and depression, says Lynn Schiller, Ph.D., the public education coordinator for the New Jersey Psychological Association (NJPA), a member of its executive board and a clinical psychologist in Summit. If there’s been a significant life event, like a divorce or remarriage, the death of a loved one or pet, a move, a serious illness, or the birth of a sibling, you’ll want to be aware of how that might affect your child’s state of mind. 

Be on the Lookout for:

•  Sudden shifts in your child’s personality: Heightened or out-of-the-ordinary anger, irritability, aggressiveness, social isolation, uncontrollable crying, clinginess or milestone regression (such as bed-wetting long after potty training) are all signs to watch out for. Also, consider any changes in his sleep habits or appetite, such as frequent nightmares, trouble staying or falling asleep or eating too little or too much.

•  Any behavior dramatic enough to disrupt her daily routines: If she’s afraid to go to school, for instance, or if she’s so distressed or sad that she can’t take care of herself those are red flags.

•  Self-destructive behavior: It’s uncommon, but sometimes your kid might exhibit behaviors that could hurt him or others. If that’s the case, seek help immediately. Watch out for: hurting or talking about hurting himself, another person or animals; severe depression; an eating disorder; drug or alcohol abuse; setting fires; hearing voices; or talking to people who aren’t there beyond the normal “imaginary friend” games of early childhood.

What to do

Gather as much information as you can about your child’s behaviors, talking to caregivers and teachers in her life. Discuss your findings with your pediatrician, who can help diagnose or rule out a condition like depression, an anxiety disorder or ADHD. If you’re really worried, contact a pediatric psychologist directly for an appointment.