Health & Parenting: Ask A Psychologist

March 29 2013, 11:10 AM

In this month’s print edition of 5280, we outline some of the biggest physical health issues facing our state’s children. As we were speaking with parents during our research, however, we realized that many are just as worried about their kids’ mental and behavioral health. We caught up with Dr. Jeffrey Dolgan, a senior psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, to get answers for a few of parents’ most pressing (and timely) questions.

Q: My teenager is very moody and sometimes has violent temper tantrums. How do I know if he could be dangerous to others?

A: Although all kids come with their own behavioral challenges, only a small percentage have diagnosable mental illnesses. The kids that we see don’t vary from supposedly “normal” kids in kind, but they do in degree. Most adolescents have moody episodes where they may be angry or preoccupied for a day or two, but not two weeks, not two months. Most teens slam doors; they don’t assault their parents. The problem comes when parents aren’t confident in what they’re intuiting. “It’s a phase” is classic minimization and denial.

Q: Since the shootings in Newtown, my six-year-old is afraid to go to school. How do I help her cope?

A: At home, try to normalize things as much as possible, but hear her fears and take them seriously. Provide reassurance that schools are doing everything they can and procedures are being implemented. Just talking is good; I would be more concerned about a child who is quietly worrying on her own or has those themes showing up in drawings.

Q: I think my elementary-school-age child is gay. How do I let him know he can come out and be accepted?

A: It helps for parents to model an accepting environment around all kinds of diversity. Recognize that when kids come out, they’ve been working on their identity for a long time, and probably all the pieces are still not put together. Kids are generally afraid of losing parents’ support and love, and they also worry about adding to their parents’ burdens. I would say not to push kids too much; they’ll come out sooner or later.

—Image courtesy of Children's Hospital Colorado

Follow copy chief Jessica Farmwald on Twitter at @JessicaKF.