We love our pediatrician. Truly. We’ve seen the same doctor since my daughter was a newborn, and I have never been shy about reaching out to her with questions or for guidance when I felt something wasn’t right with my child.
She’s the expert, I figured, and we’re on a team to give my kiddo every opportunity to arrive at adulthood healthy and happy. But despite that relationship around physical health, I struggled to get my head around accepting mental health support for my teenager. While the stigma around admitting mental health struggles is waning, and seeking help more acceptable than ever before, helping solving my kid’s problems and teaching her how to cope with the world felt like my job as a parent, and getting help outside felt like a failure.
Raising kids is a roller coaster. Having your little one turn into a teenager makes the hills and drops a lot steeper. The teen years are a time for the differences in personalities, and needs pop into sharp relief. Sometimes you might feel like you’re dealing with a stranger.
When our family found itself in a long drop, I didn’t know where to look or how to start getting my daughter the support she needed. She was struggling to cope with anxiety, puberty, changes in her environment and depression. And she’s not alone; teen depression has been on the rise in recent years. Nearly one in eight young adults struggles with depression each year.
To help me know now what I wished I’d known then, I recently spoke with Michael Wallner MS, LPC of Forward Choices, LLC, a local clinic offering outpatient mental health treatment to children, adolescents, adults and families. Michael has been working in mental health for 23 years, and works extensively with children; about 50% of the clinic’s patients are children and adolescents, and a good portion of the remainder are families.
Michael shared with me that many professionals believe that "pretty much everyone would benefit" from counseling at some point in their lives. If your child is exhibiting signs and symptoms of an an issues, it’s important and normal to seek help, but bear in mind that your child doesn't need to be having a specific "problem" to require treatment.
"Not everything is trauma-related," says Wallner. Upheavals, like moving houses or adjusting to remote schooling due to COVID, experiencing a loss, dealing with run-of-the-mill developmental challenges or even just engaging in mindful awareness of emotions and surroundings are often reasons that families seek support for their kids.
While I was worried that seeking help meant that I wasn’t doing my mom-job, Wallner says many people worry that the diagnosis that arises from treatment will be used to label their child as "having difficulties" and it will be used to judge them. Though professional counselors are bound to diagnose and treat issues, Michael said that educating patients and parents about what the diagnosis truly means is vital and emphasized that a diagnosis isn’t necessarily around forever. Many adjustment disorders arise out of major change in a child’s life and can be resolved through treatment.
If you believe it might benefit your family for your child to speak with a counselor, Michael suggests starting with your child’s primary care doctor, when possible, since they’ll know your child’s health best. They can often recommend a practitioner, and this referral might be required by some insurance plans.
Ask friends and family if they have counselors they’d suggest, or search the internet for counselors in your area and review their profiles. Take the counselor’s training and background into consideration; their work and what they’ve studied is a much bigger factor than their personal life experience, and you don’t have to have kids to understand the issues and struggles they face. He suggests interviewing a therapist before their first treatment with the child to talk about the concerns beforehand and work jointly with the therapist to set up treatment goals. Wallner says this is especially true for younger kids who "aren’t great reporters" to give the counselor a solid background and allow for a clear treatment path.
Michael reassured me that it’s "not bad or unusual for kids to have a hard time having conversations in the home" about topics they’re struggling with. The things they bring up in therapy can help kick-start conversations with the adults in their family and can be a great tool to break down those barriers and improve continued communication at home.
This journey has made me realize that asking for help and guidance doesn’t make me a failed parent. We need an assist from the experts about parenting just as much as we do about plumbing or our car’s engine or that suspicious mole on your foot. It’s not our job to have all the answers all the time. I can be a source of information, but I don’t have to be the end-all. It has shown my daughter that there’s strength in using your resources and being honest with yourself when you’re out of your depth.
If you think your child might need help or may be in danger, don’t be afraid or ashamed to explore your resources. Here are some:
Kellie has loved Milwaukee since before loving Milwaukee was cool, and knew this was the place to settle down and raise a family. She’s got an opinion about almost everything and loves to pick up new fun facts. Kellie keeps busy as the Group HR Manager for Saz’s Hospitality Group, a hometown favorite, by teaching at Mount Mary, getting involved in her community and trying to play catchup on her reading pile, though she’ll never say no to a nap. Most days, she’s also trying to talk herself out of or into running another half marathon. Kellie lives in Wauwatosa with her partner Rob, who is an owner of Vennture Brew Co, and her daughter Anna.