I don't know about everyone else, but it took me days if not weeks to figure out when my kids had an ear infection. One of the reasons was that an ear infection is internal. With an ear infection there are no flushed cheeks, rashes or mucus. There is no sneeze or barking cough to give it away.
Likewise with emotional problems. While it can be true that the emotions of a child are worn on their pink tutus and batman capes it also can be true that the emotions of a child are almost completely hidden, just like the ear infection. In the case of the latter, you may find out long after the fact that your child has been suffering.
On the other hand, when you do notice something and tell a doctor, you may encounter a response like, "Don't go looking for a zebra when it's likely a horse"--a patronizing way for a doctor to ignore a potential problem. Personally, I want to have a long talk with the doctor who came up with that instructive expression. After I give him a piece of my mind, I have a few plots of land in the Okefenokee Swamp I'd like to sell him. He owes me and my family, big time.
In our family, we seem to have run the gamut of emotional and behavioral issues, both genetically and by way of adverse experience. So I just happen to have a long list of symptoms I would watch for, not in an hysterical way, but in the way a mom keeps a running list in her head...just in case. From that long list, here are the top nine in my experience with my own family and with other families I know:
1. Thick stacks of friendship bracelets and those colorful rubber bracelets. Sure, they are fashionable. However, they can be a sign of cutting. Don't freak out at the sight of the first couple of bracelets. What you want to notice is an excessive attempt on your child's part to cover up her body in some unusual way.
2. A sudden switch to locking doors. While it is true that teenagers will want more privacy and should be allowed to lock a door when dressing, a sudden need for a locked door 24/7 is a sign something is up. It's time to pay attention.
3. Sudden disinterest in activities previously enjoyed. This is usually accompanied by lethargy.
4. Flying-under-the-radar syndrome. This is terrifically difficult to spot. For a busy parent, it requires the ability to see through the daily dust storm of activity and mental clutter to the child who is silent and becoming slowly invisible. Time to spend more time with that child. Find out why.
5. Sudden emotional outbursts. This would apply to a child suddenly changing how they express their anger. Even if you have a drama queen child, you will know the difference. Do not chalk it up to more drama. Sometimes a display of drama is a sign of a child's significant distress. Try not to punish them for drama, alone. After they have calmed down, try to dig a little deeper.
6. Your child becomes highly critical of their friends and family. This is a sure sign that a kid isn't liking themselves and projecting that self-hatred off onto others.
7. Separation anxiety and having a hard time transitioning after visitation. A sign that your child is not dealing well with the loss of your ex in the family. Also, if your child suddenly has separation anxiety when you go to work, go shopping or, go anywhere the child can't be with you. If your child goes from being independent to clingy after your divorce, there is a problem.
8. Younger children may regress in their behaviors. A potty trained child may begin to wet her pants, suck her thumb or want to be carried everywhere. Pay attention if your toddle begins to act like the baby they used to be.
9. Anxiety and constant worry is another big sign that something is wrong. I had a friend who's son started having panic attacks at school. Has your child turned into someone who worries about bad things happening? Get him/her into therapy!
Because two of my children had significant emotional issues while maintaining top grades, social lives and full sports schedules, I also want to disabuse anyone out there of the notion that if a child's grades are high and they are social and active then all is well. This was not true for us. Yes, it can be true that a high functioning student is just fine and dandy, however the medical confusion around this idea hurt my family because medical problems were ignored.
The most important thing is to trust your instincts. You know your child best. Not the doctor, not the therapist, not the social worker and not the teacher or coach. Although, I would most certainly listen to any of these people if they came to me with concerns. In most cases, it takes a tremendous amount of reflection and courage for someone outside your family to come forward with a concern. So, personally? I would listen. The biggest enemy to children experiencing deep emotional pain is denial. Paying attention is the best way to love them.