Signs of Mental Illness in Children
In children, mental illness can be hard to identify, leaving many without the treatment they could benefit from. Even parents who can see the signs of mental illness can have a difficult time distinguishing it from normal childhood behavior.1 The stigma of mental illness, the use of medicines, and the cost of treatment are also common factors that prevent parents from seeking care for their child with a suspected mental illness.1
Children can experience a wide range of mental health conditions:1
- Anxiety Disorders: Children with anxiety disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder, have a level of anxiety that is persistent and interferes with their everyday activities.
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): This disorder includes a wide range of issues, such as sustaining attention, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior.
- Autism: Appearing in early childhood, usually before the age of three, this disorder affects a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others.
- Eating Disorders: Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder are all serious conditions. Children may become extremely preoccupied with food and weight, unable to focus on much else.
- Mood Disorders: Depression and bipolar disorder can cause a child to feel persistent sadness or extreme mood swings.
- Schizophrenia: Children with this disorder often lose touch with reality.
There are many warning signs of mental illness, although they can be difficult to spot:1
- Mood Changes: Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that can last at least two weeks, as well as severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home and at school.
- Intense Feelings: Overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing, that interferes with daily activities are a sign of anxiety.
- Behavior Changes: Out-of-control behavior, such as fighting, using weapons, or expressing desire to hurt others are serious warning signs.
- Difficulty Concentrating: Look for signs of trouble focusing or sitting still, which may cause poor performance in school.
- Weight Loss: Sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting, or laxative use may be signs of an eating disorder.
- Physical harm: Self-harm can lead to suicidal thoughts or attempts.
- Substance Abuse: Sometimes children try to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.
If you suspect that your child may have a mental health condition, consult your child’s doctor and describe the behaviors that concern you.1 Talk to your child’s teacher, friends, and loved ones to see if they’ve noticed any changes in your child’s behavior.1
To make a diagnosis, your doctor may suggest that your child be evaluated by a psychiatrist.1 The psychiatrist will work with you and your child to determine if he or she has a mental health condition.1 They will also look for other possible causes of your child’s behavior, such as medical conditions or trauma.1 Although the process can be difficult, treatment is needed to improve the life of your child.1 Oftentimes, therapy is the first form of treatment, followed by prescribed medicines, if necessary.1
Throughout the process, your child needs your full support.1 They may be experiencing feelings of helplessness, anger, and frustration—just like you.1 Your mental health provider can give you tips on how to interact with your child and handle their behavior.1 You may be asked to praise his or her strengths and abilities, practice stress management, and respond calmly in stressful situations.1 Family counseling is often a good way to learn to cope with your family situation.1
Above all else, always seek advice.1 Don’t avoid getting your child help due to fear or shame.1 With the appropriate supports, your child can soon thrive again.1