Learn more about the signs and support for mental health problems in children!
Our children are a source of immense delight for all of us, whether we are parents, teachers, grandparents, aunts, or uncles. They represent our shared future. We care for them like our own, bringing them up, educating them, entertaining them, and helping them get well.
Our primary concern as guardians is the well-being of our children, and we will spare no effort to that end. However, children are not immune to the effects of genetics, society, and stress on mental health.
Keeping this in mind, closely monitoring a child’s emotional well-being is important. Abnormal behavior could be a symptom of a mental health condition, but it may also be a natural part of childhood or a time of development like puberty.
What are Mental Health Problems?
Children as young as preschool age can and do have serious mental health issues. Symptoms of neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, as well as other mental health issues like anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, can appear in young children. However, young children’s responses to and processing of emotional experiences and traumatic events differ significantly from those of adults and older children. So it can be considerably more challenging to diagnose a child than an adult.
Both genetics and environmental factors affect children’s mental health. DNA does not determine one’s fate. Although our genes contain instructions for how our bodies should function, the chemical “signature” of our surroundings can either permit or block the execution of those instructions. The interaction between genetic predispositions and persistent stress-inducing conditions can set the stage for a lifetime of poor mental health.
Research shows that long-term exposure to toxic stress can cause changes in brain structure that put people at a higher risk for developing mental health problems both now and in the future. Toxic stress has long-lasting effects on brain development and other organ systems, which can have a ripple effect on a person’s readiness for school, academic achievement, and physical and mental health. Prolonged financial uncertainty and other sources of family stress have been related to an increased risk of mental illness. Those young children who are victims of domestic violence, parental mental illness, or substance misuse are especially at risk for abuse and neglect.
No time is ever too early, but the sooner the better. There are limits to a child’s capacity for psychological recovery from adversity, yet some people show amazing capacities to overcome the extreme obstacles of early, continuous mistreatment, trauma, and mental injury.
Signs of Mental Health Problems in Children
Children’s emotions and actions frequently go through swings. Some kids, though, don’t “bounce back” from setbacks, and this begins to have significant consequences. A child’s mental health may be suffering if they exhibit this behavior.
Emotional and behavioral signs
- seem to have lost their previous excitement for life’s pleasures.
- tears easily when separated from you and/or avoids social settings
- appears depressed, miserable, or tearful; exhibits excessive anxiety or concern;
- exhibits persistently aggressive or angry behavior, as in the form of repeated tantrums.
- starts acting like a baby again, such as by sucking their thumb or peeing on the bed.
- has difficulties focusing, fidgets uncontrollably, or is unable to sit still.
- has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- has trouble getting out of bed.
- struggling with their diet or eating too much
- radically altered their weight by either losing or gaining a lot of weight.
- has a problem with their body (a headache, stomachache, feeling sick, etc.) for which there is no clear medical reason.
School and social signs
If your child is at school, you might also notice:
- does not do as well academically as normal.
- struggles to make friends or fit in at school.
- want to stay at home and avoid attending class.
- resists following the instructions of the teacher.
- has stopped communicating with their buddies
- disinterested in participating in regular activities or attending social gatherings such as birthday parties.
Conversations About Mental Health With Children
If your child’s mood or behavior has suddenly changed, it’s important to have a conversation with them about it and pay close attention to what they have to say. Just listening to your child and showing them you care might go a long way toward calming their nerves if they’re unhappy about anything. This may be all the assistance they require.
Here are some possible approaches to discussing mental health with your child:
- The next time you see your child upset, explain that you want to help them feel better.
- If you’re understanding and don’t react negatively to your child’s expressions of emotion, they’ll be more willing to open up to you.
- Reassure your child that these feelings are normal and that it is normal for adults and children alike to experience them.
- Explain to your child that it takes courage to talk about feelings and thoughts, but that sharing their concerns with a trusted adult could be beneficial.
- Encourage your child to talk to you whenever he or she feels comfortable.
- The best way to determine what your child needs to feel well is to ask them. This information can be useful in providing or securing the care your child needs.
Getting Help for Children’s Mental Health Problems
If you see any of the following changes in your child’s mood or behavior, it’s best to seek professional treatment right away:
- continue for more than a month or two.
- causing your kid’s stress
- are having a negative impact on their close relationships.
- interfere with your kids’ regular routines and prevent them from having fun.
Many different kinds of expert help are available, such as:
- preschool or elementary school educator, or guidance counselor
- general practitioner or pediatrician
- someone with special training as a child and family psychologist
- mental health social worker
- Visit the community health center or pediatric clinic in your area.
- local resources for mental health care.
Mental Health Problems in Children
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
The inability to focus and become easily distracted during growth characterizes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The DSM-5 classifies ADHD as inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, or mixed.
ADHD symptoms and manic or hypomanic episodes in bipolar disorder can share a lot of similarities. A child’s symptoms could include irritability, excessive chattering, trouble focusing, and a decline in social skills. It is the responsibility of the treating clinician to determine whether or not these symptoms represent separate conditions. Before treating ADHD, it is important to rule out bipolar disorder because the treatment, a stimulant, could make manic episodes worse in children with the disorder.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
An ongoing pattern of hostile or irritable mood, argumentative or defiant behavior or vindictiveness toward adults or other authority figures for at least six months constitutes oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Symptoms of this behavioral condition typically emerge before the age of eight. Before puberty, it primarily affects boys, but afterward, it affects both sexes in about equal numbers. As opposed to DMDD, children with ODD experience inappropriate or irritated outbursts directed at specific adults, most commonly their parents and teachers. Children with ODD, among other things, frequently act perfectly, which can be very stressful for their parents.
Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
A child with separation anxiety disorder (SAD) suffers from severe distress whenever they are away from their primary caregiver. The avoidance of school and social activities, repeated dreams about separation, and the reporting of physical issues while separated from significant attachment figures are all further signs. Criteria for a diagnosis of SAD include substantial impairment in social, vocational, or academic performance. Separation anxiety is commonly seen in children who have had early trauma due to being separated from a parent or primary caregiver.
The DSM-5 defines pica as “the intake of non-edible substances for at least one month at an age when this behavior is regarded developmentally inappropriate,” making it an official diagnosis for eating disorders (at least two years of age). Ice, clay, lead, dirt, sand, stones, paint chips, charcoal, chalk, wood, light bulbs, needles, wire, cigarette butts, and wire are among the things a child with this disorder may try to eat. PICA is the most frequent eating disorder in adults with developmental disabilities, despite its higher occurrence in children.
Children who have experienced trauma often have difficulty regulating their emotions, forming healthy connections, and learning about who they are, even after being placed in a safe and nurturing setting. When kids are able to get through hard times, it’s usually because caring adults work hard to help them. These results show how important it is to find situations that put young children at high risk of serious psychological harm quickly and act on them.
The family, home, and community settings are crucial when treating mental health problems in young children. When parents and households are healthy, children thrive emotionally. Having mental health problems at a young age is more likely to happen if you are in a relationship that is abusive, threatening, consistently careless, or mentally harmful. When relationships are responsive and helpful, however, they can protect young children from the harmful impacts of other stressors. As a result, decreasing the pressure on children necessitates addressing the stresses on their families.