Accession of Croatia to the European Union opens opportunities for a better and more intensive cooperation between the Child Protection Center of Zagreb and the Council of Europe and the European Union member states. We have been invited to present our practice of hearing children-victims during the criminal pre-trial in the child friendly environment. The presentation was held at the Council of Europe Strasbourg Seminar on 9 February 2012.
We have noticed that parents sometimes hesitate to seek professional help for their child and their family. In our culture, contacting a psychologist or a psychiatrist is sometimes seen in a negative light. Parents may be judged by others that something is wrong with them or with their child, that they are unable to solve the problem themselves, and similar. Such attitudes may cause the parents to feel shame and resistance, they may develop anger towards their child who ’causes problems’ and parents may start taking their child’s psychological difficulties personally.
We often hear about ‘ungrateful children’ whose parents ‘gave them everything, and they are still acting that way’, or that ‘children are hypersensitive’, because in our time ‘children were chastised and they did not cry for every little thing’.
Such attitudes may result from various factors. Among other things, they may be caused by defences against admitting there is a problem, against responsibility and potential changes in the family. However, these do not mean such attitudes are right and that children do not need professional help. Such families may need professional help more than those where problems are freely discussed and where attempts are made to solve them.
When we are talking about children’s mental health, we can compare it to physical health. For example, if the child had fallen and broken his/her leg, would you tell him/her to deal with it and walk, or would you seek medical help? It is the same in cases when the child has emotional, social or behavioural difficulties.
Psychological problems may be more serious than physical problems. Although there are no visible wounds, bruises or high body temperature, the child is still “hurting”.
Some parents say that a problem can be solved by itself, which is true for some situations. For example, children have some developmentally appropriate fears which usually vanish with adequate support from their environment, the same way small bruises on their knees heal. However, in some situations it is not about difficulties we expect in most children, and parental support alone is not sufficient. Besides, if parents notice that their child has some difficulties parents do not easily understand nor can deal with, they usually need advice and support themselves. Children can survive some mental health problems without help, the same way a fractured leg can heal without help. The question is at what price. The leg healing without help would probably hurt a lot, or would heal in a wrong way losing a part of its function. The child would be able to walk, but not to freely run. Professional help in healing and recovery can significantly contribute to the quality of life of the child and the whole family.
We would not wait for months to seek help for the child’s broken leg. We should not wait to seek help in cases of psychological difficulties. Prevention and early intervention are the key to a faster and better healing.
Some parents have difficulties in deciding if their child needs professional help. In such cases they can ask professionals in their child’s school or kindergarten, or simply ask some mental health professional. There is no one universal answer when it is appropriate to seek professional help. It depends on the child’s characteristics, his/her previous experience, life context, family dynamics, etc. When we are not sure, it is best to use the individual approach in evaluating and diagnosing the child.
Some parents find it hard to accept that their child’s behaviour is largely shaped by their behaviour. Some find it difficult to understand that a psychologist cannot ‘repair’ their child to behave and feel better without parents’ and other adults’ cooperation in the child’s environment. It is understandable that we do not like to be criticized, especially when we are trying hard and investing much love and energy in our children’s upbringing, like most parents do.
I have never met a parent who wished his/her child something bad, but I have seen plenty who harmed their children although they had the best possible intentions. Whenever we work with children, we work with parents, too, because they are the most important figures in their children’s lives. Mental health professionals do not aim at criticizing parents nor humiliating them because of their mistakes. On the contrary, our aim is to understand together with parents how all love, care, time and effort parents already invest in their children could be more appropriately and more efficiently directed.
There is nothing wrong in seeking psychological help. It is a valuable message to send to your children by seeking professional help. Mental health is also health. That is why we should take care of it every day.