More than ‘just a phase’

When a child falls off a bike and breaks an arm, parents know what to do.

But when a child’s pain and distress are on the inside, it can be hard to know when to reach out for help.

As a psychologist who specializes in working with children and families, I’ve heard many parents ask, “Is this behavior normal? Or is this just a phase?”

It’s an important question to ask because depression and anxiety are more prevalent than many parents realize. 

The National Institute of Health has identified mental health challenges as the most common and the most expensive health conditions of childhood. Mental health disorders don’t discriminate; they impact every age, gender, culture, religion and income level. 

A child’s response

The truth is everyone has mental health. 

One out of five Minnesota children will experience mental health challenges at some point in their childhood — but only 20 percent of children with mental disorders will receive mental health services.

Mental health disorders such as depression can look different in children than adults, but often are triggered by similar life challenges — a difficult relationship, a major (or even minor) transition in life, a change in the family system, the loss of something or someone important. 

For children, whose brains are still developing, having adults who can attend to their mental health and bolster their social supports is key to their adaptability.

Signs to spot

The following questions may help tease out when your child’s emotional or behavioral difficulties have reached a level where more help is needed: 

Does your child have:

  • Disrupted sleep, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, or frequent nightmares?
  • Anxious or depressed feelings that make it hard to play, learn or connect with others?
  • Emotional or behavioral displays that seem out of proportion to the current situation or have persisted for several weeks? 

Has your child:

  • Witnessed or experienced a traumatic event, such as a car accident or community violence?
  • Experienced significant loss, such as a death in the family, a move or divorce?
  • Been encouraged by a teacher or pediatrician to complete a behavioral, emotional or developmental assessment?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions — and your child is struggling at home or in school — you may want to consider reaching out for help. 

Trust your instincts

Ultimately it comes down to your intuition. As a parent, you know your child best. If you begin to feel like an issue is impacting your child’s and family’s overall well-being, give yourself the OK to say, “I need help to see if this is more than just a phase.” 

Reach out to your child’s network for help. Ask your pediatrician if she would recommend an assessment by a mental health professional. Ask your child’s teacher what he observes in the classroom. 

Check with your school social worker or guidance counselor to see what types of services are available at your child’s school. 

Many schools in our community have a child therapist based right on site to offer families convenient access to mental health care. 

What to expect

Look for a therapist who will collaborate alongside you to develop an understanding of your child’s social, emotional and behavioral development. Then determine a path for healing. A mental health professional will support your child, your family and often the systems your child is a part of (child care, school, community programs). 

The ultimate goal of therapy is to nurture your child’s resilience and well-being.

As you reach out for help, remember, we all have mental health. And our mental health is just as important to care for as our physical health.


Dr. Rachael Krahn is a child psychologist with the Washburn Center for Children, a Minneapolis-based community mental health center with a mission to nurture every child and family’s well-being and full potential through transformative children’s mental health care. Learn more at washburn.org.