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Let’s talk: Talking to your child’s pediatrician about behavioral and mental health

As a pediatrician who cares for kids and teens, one of the best parts of my job is the trust  I have built with my patients and their parents, caregivers and families. It leads to great conversations about health concerns from growth spurts to sore throats — a normal and expected part of doctor visits. Pediatricians are just as comfortable talking about kids’ behavioral health — it’s something we do at every checkup!

When talking with your child’s pediatrician about behavioral health, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Worrisome behaviors and stage of development

Behaviors that parents find worrisome may be normal for a child’s age or stage of development. At every age and stage, kids’ behaviors change. For example, at 4 months of age, a baby may go to another caregiver easily, while at 9 months, babies often have separation anxiety and may cry or fuss a lot when handed to a less familiar caregiver. A pediatrician can help you anticipate normal behavioral changes that your child is about to undergo, helping smooth the waters as kids keep on changing.

Discuss concerns with your child’s pediatrician early on

If you have a behavioral concern about your child, it’s best to address it right away, instead of waiting until it becomes a bigger problem. Often, concerns will resolve on their own, but pediatricians also have experience sharing information and resources. For example, we can give parents information to help them advocate for their child at school, or can provide referrals or resources like websites, books and support groups.

Talk with your teen first

It can be uncomfortable for a preteen or teen to have the parent bring the topics of behavioral or mental health up “cold” during a visit. Talk with your child ahead of time by using a fact-based approach: “I have noticed you are spending more time alone in your room lately, and I’m worried.” Express positive and caring emotions: “I love you and I care about you.”

Persist

At first, many teens will deny that they’re struggling with behaviors or moods. Be gentle, but let them know you want to help, and you think the doctor can help too: “I want to talk to the doctor because I want to make sure you get the help you need.” For some teens, practicing what they will say to the doctor can make them feel more comfortable. Usually, the doctor will want to spend a few minutes talking to your teen alone. This allows the teen to ask questions and build a rapport with the doctor.

Mental health/depression screenings

It is becoming more common to do child mental health/depression screenings starting around adolescence. This is because depression is common in teenagers. It is not anyone’s fault, it’s just part of life. And just as people can overcome or recover from eczema or asthma, they can do the same with depression or anxiety.

A behavioral health screening, based on a checklist that preteens and teens fill out, is a validated tool that can help providers and parents identify concerns. Since depression in teens often looks different than that of adults, a screen can catch concerns early and help providers offer guidance and resources.

Behavioral concerns don’t predict mental illness later in life

All kids experience ups and downs with behavior, and every parent worries about their child’s behavior at some point. Needing extra support with behavioral health at any age does not necessarily predict problems later on. Being non-judgmental about ourselves as parents can help. Letting your child know you sometimes have bad days or sad emotions can help “normalize” them — and makes it easier to talk about with someone else, like a doctor.

Our commitment

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Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has a vision that Wisconsin kids will be the healthiest in the nation.

Supporting kids’ and teens’ mental and behavioral health is a key part of achieving that vision. We are committed to programs and services that help build resilience, promote mental health and support families.

Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin is a proud supporter of Gannett Wisconsin’s Kids in Crisis series in support of these commitments.

Most importantly, remember that it’s a pediatrician’s job to listen and help parents be the best they can be. We value the opportunity to have that impact. So, let’s talk!