Normal childhood development is a process that involves change. This changes make it difficult to understand mental health disorders in children. Additionally, these symptoms may vary depending on a child’s age, and children may not be able to explain how they feel or why they are behaving a certain way.
Concerns about the stigma associated with mental illness, and the cost or logistical challenges of treatment might also prevent parents from seeking care for a child who has a suspected mental health challenge.
Common mental health disorders among children
Mental health disorders in children — or developmental disorders that are addressed by mental health professionals — may include the following:
- Anxiety disorders: These include persistent fears, worries or anxiety that disrupts a child’s ability to participate in play, school or typical age-appropriate social situations. Diagnoses include social anxiety, generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Compared with most children of the same age, children with ADHD have difficulty with attention, impulsive behaviors, hyperactivity or some combination of these problems.
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological condition that appears in early childhood — usually before age 3. Although the severity of ASD varies, a child with this disorder has difficulty communicating and interacting with others.
- Eating disorders: Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. It can result in emotional and social dysfunction and life-threatening physical complications. Eating disorders are defined as disordered thinking about weight and weight loss, and unsafe eating and dieting habits.
- Depression and other mood disorders. Depression is persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest that disrupt a child’s ability to function in school and interact with others. Bipolar disorder results in extreme mood swings between depression and extreme emotional or behavioral highs that may be unguarded, risky or unsafe.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is prolonged emotional distress, anxiety, distressing memories, nightmares and disruptive behaviors in response to violence, abuse, injury or other traumatic events.
- Schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a disorder in perceptions and thoughts that cause a person to lose touch with reality (psychosis). Most often appearing in the late teens through the 20s, schizophrenia results in hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking and behaviors.
What are the warning signs of mental illness in children?
Warning signs that your child may have a mental health disorder include:
- Persistent sadness — two or more weeks
- Withdrawing from or avoiding social interactions
- Hurting oneself or talking about hurting oneself
- Talking about death or suicide
- Outbursts or extreme irritability
- Out-of-control behavior that can be harmful
- Drastic changes in mood, behavior or personality
- Changes in eating habits
- Loss of weight
- Difficulty sleeping
- Frequent headaches or stomachaches
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in academic performance
- Avoiding or missing school
What should I do if I suspect my child has a mental health condition?
If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, consult your child’s doctor. Describe the behaviors that concern you. Talk to your child’s teacher, close friends, relatives or other caregivers to see if they’ve noticed changes in your child’s behavior. Share this information with your child’s doctor.
How can I help my child cope with mental illness?
You will play an important role in supporting your child’s treatment plan. To care for yourself and your child:
- Learn about the illness.
- Consider family counseling that treats all members as partners in the treatment plan.
- Ask your child’s mental health professional for advice on how to respond to your child and handle difficult behavior.
- Enroll in parent training programs, particularly those designed for parents of children with a mental illness.
- Explore stress management techniques to help you respond calmly.
- Seek ways to relax and have fun with your child.
- Praise your child’s strengths and abilities.
- Work with your child’s school to secure necessary support.
What Every Child Needs For Good Mental Health
It is easy for parents to anticipate and identify their child’s physical needs: food, clothes & shelter. However, their mental and emotional needs may not be so obvious. Good mental health allows children to think clearly, develop socially and learn new skills.
Here are a few things children need
- Praise Them – Assure them by smiling and talking to them often. Be an active participant in their activities. Your attention helps build their self-confidence and self-esteem.
- Set Realistic Goals – With your help, older children can choose activities that test their abilities and increase their self-confidence. Young children need realistic goals that match their ambitions with their abilities.
- Be Honest – Do not hide your failures from your children. It is important for them to know that we all make mistakes. It can be very re-assuring to know that adults are not perfect.
- Avoid Sarcastic Remarks – If a child loses a game or fails a test, find out how he or she feels about the situation. Children may get discouraged and need a pep talk. Later, when they are ready, talk and offer assurance.
- Encourage children – To not only strive to do their best, but also to enjoy the process. Trying new activities teaches children about teamwork, self-esteem and new skills.
Criticize the behavior, not the child – It is best to say, “That was a bad thing you did,” rather than “You are a bad boy or girl. Give children the reasons “why” you are disciplining them and what the potential consequences of their actions might be.