Is It Time to Get Help?

It is 2:00 AM, and my 6-month-old son has croup. I am sitting vigil, listening to the stridor of his breath: the wheeze and rattle of it. I haven’t slept yet tonight, and will only end up sleeping for a couple hours while my wife takes a watch. We haven’t gone through anything like this before, and I am terrified.

His fever and labored breathing popped up late on a Saturday night, so we’ve only talked to our doctor on the phone. She gave us a couple things we could do to help at home and said he should be alright eventually, but—and here’s the terrifying part—that we need to watch him, even while he sleeps, and if his breathing gets worse we need to take him to the ER immediately.

She didn’t describe exactly what ‘worse breathing’ would sound like. I know she would recognize it in a second—she is an expert after all—and she did her best to explain it to us over the phone, but there are limits. So here I am at 2 AM, sitting on the edge of my chair. Every time there is the slightest change in his breathing pattern, my heart leaps into my chest and I ask myself “Is this it? Is it bad enough now? Is it time to get help?”

Later, when my son is better and there is room in my brain to think about anything other than his condition, I realize that this terrible, nerve-wracking, all-encompassing experience is what many parents are going through every day. Not knowing if the problem can be taken care of at home or if it’s time to get expert help. That not knowing drives us crazy. On the one hand, we don’t want to spend the time and resources and put our kids through the process of getting professional support unless it’s necessary. On the other hand, how terrible to think that perhaps we are denying our children help that they need and deserve?

This night, I scoured the internet for information from experts to help me make the call, and I didn’t find much. I felt lost and alone and terrified that I was making a mistake. And I resolved afterward to not leave other parents in the same situation. I am an expert in helping children with social, emotional, and academic issues. And as someone who is always ready to step in, who often wishes that children had been brought to me earlier, I want to be as clear as I can be in helping to make the decision: “Is it time to get help?”

Here are the signs I recommend you look for when deciding whether or not to bring your child to see me or one of my colleagues:

The problem is not getting better despite our attempts to address it. Your daughter told you a few months ago that she feels lonely and depressed. The other kids at school, she says, don’t understand her and don’t like her. You’ve reassured her that she has many friends that care about her, given her advice on how to approach others, and personally set up many play-dates with classmates, but she keeps saying the same thing. No one gets her, she’s lonely and depressed. It’s time to find support.

The problem OR the attempts to solve it are escalating. Your son missed a few assignments after starting at his new school a few months ago. By the end of the quarter, he failed or nearly failed classes because he was missing half or more of his work. At first you tried to help by giving him gentle reminders to do his homework, now you are taking everything out of his backpack every day after school to go through all his work together. You are spending time communicating with teachers directly to keep track of his work and get extensions for him. It’s time to find support.

The majority of your conversations with your child sooner or later turn to the problem. Even when you’re not talking about it, you’re talking about it. Somehow a discussion of fun weekend plans ends up as a lecture about not procrastinating. That wasn’t your intention. Kids in this situation often shut themselves up in their room or avoid talking to you because they feel that any conversation will only end up making them feel bad. If you’re talking about the problem too much, or not talking very much at all, it’s time to find support.

The solution you have in place is unsustainable. Your son often gets worried when you’re not around. Sometimes so much so that he cries or becomes physically ill or acts out at school. When that happens, he calls from the office and you pick him up early. He always calms down and feels better when you get him, but he’s missing a lot of school, and you are constantly cancelling your own plans to accommodate him. This can’t go on forever. It’s time to find support.

You’ve gotten into emotionally intense interactions around the issue more than once or twice. It seems like every time you try to talk to your daughter about how much time she’s spending on the computer lately, you end up in a screaming match. Things often escalate much faster than you expect. Sometimes there’s no screaming, but one or both of you end up crying, maybe out of frustration, maybe out of a sense of powerlessness, maybe something else. It’s important to know that when we experience strong emotions, the parts of our brain responsible for listening to others and understanding logic shut down. Many times, when people feel their loved ones just aren’t listening to them, this is what’s happening. If you, your spouse, or your children are experiencing strong emotions around a particular issue, it’s time to find support.

Of course, the potentially frustrating caveat to all this is that no one is a greater expert on your family than you. It’s important to listen to your instincts. That said, if you notice any one of these five things happening, please come see us. At the very least, counseling experts like us can help determine in a single intake session whether further support is needed or not, and we’d always rather see someone early than late. The truth is, if you found this blog because you are searching online for a framework to help you decide if your current situation would benefit from expert support, you probably already know on some level that it would.  Don’t put yourself and your family through more pain than you need to. Recognize the signs, and find help when you need it.