We must never believe that resilience means invulnerability. All people reach their limits sometimes. It's not a sign of weakness on our children's part, nor a sign of poor parenting on ours when children display human limitations.
When children are no longer coping well, they may verbalize their feelings clearly and express exactly what they need. But usually, we have to remain alert to subtle indications our children are troubled.
• Signs of trouble can include regression. A 3-year-old may react to the birth of a new baby by becoming infantile to demand attention from her parents. Older children and adolescents might have tantrums they haven't had since they were toddlers to let us know they are out of control. Sometimes a stressed child will become overwhelmingly lovable. Be thrilled when your child wants to snuggle up the way she did as a toddler, but if it's a change of behavior allow her the opportunity to open up about something that may be troubling her.
• Children experience stress through their bodies, just as we do. They get bellyaches, headaches, fatigued, and even have chest pain when they're stressed. Don't shame them by assuming they're faking to avoid school or get out of responsibilities. It's likely that they don't yet understand the connection between their emotions and their bodies' responses. It's important to have them examined by a pediatric caregiver to be sure there's not a treatable illness, but it's equally important to consider that children with frequent aches and pains may be stressed.
• Some troubled children have sleep disturbances-sleeping too much or having trouble falling asleep. They may have nightmares or a renewed need to sleep in your bed. Because children sometimes don't even know they're having trouble sleeping, look for signs of fatigue or difficulty waking up in time for school.
• School-aged children often reveal their levels of stress through school performance. Remember, school is the job of childhood. Just as adults' performance at work declines with increasing stress, children find it difficult to focus on schoolwork. Anytime a child's grades are slipping significantly, it should be a red flag that alerts you to explore what is going on.
• In older children and adolescents, look for changes in their behavior. A new circle of friends or radical change in dress style merit a supportive conversation. Any suspicion that your child may be turning to substance use, including cigarettes, deserves your intensive involvement as well as professional guidance.
Many parents are attentive to signs of depression, but make the mistake of believing that childhood and adolescent depression appears the same as adult depression. To the contrary, nearly half of depressed adolescents are irritable instead of withdrawn. They may have boundless energy or act out with rage. I have taken care of many depressed teenagers whose loving parents missed their child's depression because it is sometimes difficult for parents to tell a normal teenager from a depressed one. Because normal teenagers can be irritable or have occasional outrageous outbursts, parents may miss a teen whose rage and irritability are signals of depression. This is a critical reason that parents need to feel comfortable turning to a professional for an evaluation.
When a child does reach the limits of resilience, she has to deal with a sense of inadequacy. It is important that she not also have to deal with the feeling that she is somehow letting her parents down. If you want to make sure that this never happens in your family, let go of the fantasy that your child will be able to handle everything as long as you have parented well. If you view your child's problems as a reflection of you, you won't be able to help her through the toughest of times because you'll have to work through your own feelings of failure.
Whenever your child does seem to be troubled, the first step is always to reinforce that you are there to be fully supportive. If your child seems to need more than you, it is time to turn to professional help.
Many parents have to work through their own disappointment that their child needs something more than they can give. Think of it as an act of love, not of failure. You love your child so much that you will get whatever help she needs to be able to thrive.
Dr. Ginsburg is the author of "Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings."