When is the Right Time to Seek Professional Help?

imageHave you recently experienced a divorce in your family, or do you know of a child or family in your church or community who might benefit from a professional counselor?

Do any of these words describe that child: sad, angry, defiant, distracted, experiencing change, not wanting to rehash the same story AGAIN, withdrawn? Most parents are intentional about getting the proper level of care for their child after a divorce. But, how do you know what the “proper” level of care is? Many people, including friends, family, school social workers, teammates, and church workers all are valuable and important people to walk along side a child after experiencing a divorce in his/her family. So, what good is a professional counselor, and when could it be beneficial to add a counselor into the equation? Here are three commonly asked questions about when to seek out a professional.

1. How do I know when I’m in over my head and a child needs professional help?

Here are some indicators: changes in child’s behavior, including being withdrawn, not sharing/talking, not opening up, crying and not being able to regroup, not enjoying most activities, not eating, aggressive behavior, excessive anger and blaming oneself, everything being “my fault”, drop in grades, teachers talking about behavioral and academic changes in child, suicidal thoughts/actions, and comments of “not worth living”.

Professional help can be helpful if there are any of these indicators. Meeting with a counselor allows a child to have a safe place for him/her to process difficult to manage emotions and thoughts. Sometimes children are more likely to open up if they feel safe with a neutral person, where it’s not about choosing mom or dad’s side. A professional can educate the child on valuable coping skills, emotional identification and regulation, skills to build social support and hobbies, and a place that is the child’s “own”. Sometimes counseling is helpful to simply play a game of checkers or kick a soccer ball around and let a kid be a kid when the events of the rest of his/her world feel hard. A professional will also be able to normalize behaviors and feelings, as well as to breathe hope into a child’s little soul that he/she will be OK and will make it through this tough event.

And, a professional will continue to bring much needed support, encouragement, hope, and reassurance to parents as well. Here could be some indicators for you, as a parent, that professional help might be beneficial: not being able to be emotionally or physically present with your child, excessive sleeping, feeling depressed, feeling anxious, over eating/under eating, not able to work, needing additional places in life to “break down”, and feelings of being overwhelmed and overburdened are too great. Remember, there is hope for your soul as well.

2. How do I distinguish between “normal” depression that divorce might bring about and clinical depression that needs to be treated?

There are times when all of us feel depressed, including fatigued, tired, not wanting to work, and not enjoying activities and hobbies that usually bring us joy. Divorce brings about a period of adjustment in which we grieve losses and find new hope for a new normal in life. However, when the normal sadness and anger that often accompanies a divorce begins to interfere with a parent’s ability to work or a child’s ability to go to school or practice self-care (adequate sleep, eat, play) it may be a signal of clinical depression. Also, if there are thoughts of harming oneself or feeling like you don’t want to live, this requires a greater amount of care. A counselor will be able to normalize these feelings and empathize well with your situation as well as provide you with a safe place to process. A counselor will also be able to provide support and practical tools for treating depression, including identifying reasons for thoughts and behaviors, identifying emotions and triggers for the depression, helping to rediscover your joy and purpose, and recommending a psychiatrist if needed.

3. How do I find a good Christian counselor for children of divorce – what should I look for?

Finding a good Christian counselor for a child is an invaluable resource. This should be someone who has a heart for children and God and has tools and skills to provide hope and restoration. Make sure to talk with the counselor about your views as well as his/her views to see if they are compatible and like-minded. Ask the counselor about his/her experience working with children as well as with families experiencing divorce. It is important that a counselor has resources to provide play therapy for children–possibly a play therapy room, art supplies, sand tray, blocks, books, games, dolls/army guys, and stuffed animals. Children love to play and often express what’s bothering them through playing it out or talking while playing. Check to see how your child connects and responds to the counselor after the first couple of visits. Trust can take time to build between the child and therapist, but as a parent you also should have a sense if this is a good fit. You can tell as a parent when your child feels safe and connected. Be sure to ask friends if they have had a good experience with a counselor, or contact your church to see if they have referral lists. These can be great ways to get referrals to good Christian therapists.

With your help and the help of a professional, sadness can turn to joy, anger to peace, defiance to connecting, distracted to focused, experiencing change to finding a new normal, not wanting to rehash the same story AGAIN to sharing stories, and being withdrawn can lead to reengaging in life.

Jackie Glass, MACP, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a Bachelor’s Degree from Moody Bible Institute and a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from Trinity International University. She has a private counseling practice at Lifetime Behavioral Health in West Chicago, IL and has also served in churches working in children’s ministry and in a counseling capacity. Jackie is married with two young daughters. You can reach her at jackie@lifetimebehavioralhealth.com.