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What every parent should know about mental health in kids and teens

June 15, 2017

As a mental health provider, I often hear how parents and guardians of children tend to think their child is “too young” to have a mental health diagnosis. It is unfortunate, but I have noticed that the stigma of having a mental health condition gets in the way of understanding and treating children many times. Mental health conditions and disorders don't only affect adults. Children and teens can experience mental health problems, too. In fact, research shows that most mental disorders follow a developmental course that typically starts early in life. According to the National Institute of Mental Health “this is true not only of conditions such as autism and ADHD, which are well known for having onset in childhood, but also for mood, anxiety, and psychotic disorders. So, many people who suffer from depression, social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia showed signs before they were 24 years old.”

Like adults, children and teens can sometimes experience intense emotions as they get older or go through stressful or traumatic events in their lives.

Another concern I hear from parents and guardians has to do with their difficulty in understanding the behavior of a child. They often don’t know which behaviors are normal or expected for a child of a particular developmental age versus behavior that might signal there is a problem. Like adults, children and teens can sometimes experience intense emotions as they get older or go through stressful or traumatic events in their lives. For example, it is common for children to feel anxious about school or friendships, or for teens to have short periods of depression after a death in the family or a breakup. Teens also experience moodiness related to puberty and other psychosocial stressors.

Stressed Girl at School

How do I know when to seek help?

Knowing this information, how does a parent or guardian determine when to seek help? Keep in mind that mental disorders can cause ongoing, severe symptoms that affect how a child feels, thinks, acts, and handles daily activities, such as going to school, sleeping, or eating. In other words, look at the duration of the symptoms and how they affect several areas in the child/adolescent’s life.

The following list describes some symptoms to look for:

  • Often feels anxious or worried
  • Has very frequent tantrums or is intensely irritable much of the time
  • Has frequent stomachaches or headaches or other medical symptoms with no physical explanation
  • Is in constant motion, can’t sit quietly for any length of time
  • Has trouble sleeping, including frequent nightmares
  • Loses interest in things he or she used to enjoy
  • Avoids spending time with friends
  • Has trouble doing well in school, or grades decline
  • Fears gaining weight; exercises, diets obsessively
  • Has low or no energy
  • Has spells of intense, inexhaustible activity
  • Harms herself/himself, such as cutting or burning her/his skin
  • Engages in risky, destructive behavior
  • Harms self or others
  • Smokes, drinks, or uses drugs
  • Has thoughts of suicide
  • Thinks his or her mind is controlled or out of control, hears voices

Teenage Girl Buying DrugsIf you notice that your child is displaying the symptoms specified above and you perceive that your child needs help, trust your instinct and seek assistance and an evaluation from a mental health professional.

Remember that the most important factor in determining how a child will cope with a diagnosis is the parent/guardian’s ability to allow the child to openly talk about how they feel, provide consistent and effective treatment, and never shame or blame the child for their mental health diagnosis.

After all, you would not shame a child for being diagnosed with a chronic medical condition! It’s normal for the family to feel the stress related to dealing with the diagnosis and go through many emotions such as loss, anger, worry, and confusion.

Keep in mind that fortunately, there are many resources in the community for support and accurate information such as National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Institute of Mental Health.