Parents sometimes call me for advice when their children are troubled. Very often, they are trying to find out if the problem is within the normal range of behavior, or if it signals a need for therapy or other professional counseling.
Indeed, it can be difficult to tell. Childhood and adolescence are times of adjustment to a world that is sometimes confusing, frightening and angering. So it can be expected that children and teen-agers will exhibit a wider range of behavior and experience more dramatic emotional swings than typical adults.
There are, however, some aspects of the child's behavior and experiences that you can keep an eye on to help determine whether your son or daughter is going through a normal phase or needs professional help.
If a child frequently uses drugs or alcohol, for example, intervention is probably warranted. This can be tricky, though. Some cultures allow children to drink alcohol in moderation on a regular basis, without bad effects; some kids try drugs once, don't bother to again, and don't suffer permanent effects.
It's up to your judgment to decide whether your child's experience with drugs or alcohol constitutes a problem that requires help.
Major changes at home or in other areas of a child's life can also create stress that may necessitate counseling. A death, divorce, or loss of job in the family are some examples.
Be aware that if a child seems to be adjusting casually or surprisingly well to such changes, it doesn't necessarily mean there's no problem. It may be that the child isn't really adjusting at all, just avoiding it altogether. In other words, if the reaction doesn't match the event, check it out.
Sometimes you can get the answers you need by simply asking your child if he or she feels there have recently been situations that are tough to deal with.
Relationships with family and friends can be sources of strength and comfort--or of turmoil and stress.
If your child seems troubled, think about his or her relationship with each family member or close family friend. If the child has frequent arguments, little or no communication with someone, or doesn't ask for help when it's clearly needed, you may have spotted a problem that needs addressing.
Relationships outside the family can signal a need for help, too: if a child has no friends or just a few distant acquaintances, or prefers to always be alone instead of socializing with others, for example.
Mood swings hit all of us at one time or another; we may have an exhilarating day at work or school, then come home to a household crisis. And even adults have tantrums now and then.
But when a child shows frequent and extreme mood swings, there may be some underlying trouble. Losing one's temper easily and often is a common sign.
Excessive fear or anxiety should catch your attention, too. If your child seems to have more fears or worries (and more intensely) than you think are warranted, investigate.
As with adults, children and teen-agers can suffer from physical problems caused by stress that has gone unchecked for too long.
And while the school years usually bring a smattering of sniffles, allergies, and other afflictions, there are some ailments that may signal a need for comforting talk and maybe counseling. These include recurring headaches, nausea, stomachaches, insomnia, nightmares and skin conditions.
After you've considered these areas of your son's or daughter's life, check with his or her teachers, too. Teachers often see problems arise before parents do, because children and teen-agers sometimes say and do things at school that they wouldn't dare at home.
Teachers can also notice sudden changes in schoolwork, behavior and choice of friends, all of which can be early signs of emotional unrest.
If you decide that your child needs some counseling but don't know where to find a professional, ask a school counselor. They generally are knowledgeable about numerous social agencies that offer free or inexpensive counseling.
I have also found a thorough and concise brochure, published by Kevin Grold, Ph.D., called the "Test for the Necessity of Therapy for Children."
It contains 13 questions you can ask your child at home, and a scale for each, by which you can roughly measure his or her stress level.
The formula used for scoring and evaluating the child is easy. There's also a checklist of 18 behaviors to keep an eye out for, including cruelty to animals, significant weight loss and strange or frequent bruises.
You can get a copy of the test by sending a self-addressed stamped, legal-sized envelope to Mental Health Referral Service of Southern California, 11665 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 414, Los Angeles 90064.
Be sure to write the test name on the envelope. And because the referral service is a nonprofit organization, consider including the optional $1 donation to cover printing and distribution costs.
Mary Laine Yarber teaches high school English.