by Brittani L. Schanstine

Nearly 5 million children in the U.S. have a mental illness that significantly interferes with their daily lives. Children develop many of the same mental health conditions as adults. However, since their symptoms are often different, it can be difficult for parents to identify those conditions. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, mental health conditions can affect a child’s behavior, learning ability and emotional development. Therefore, it is essential that parents can recognize mental illness symptoms to get their children the help they need to reach their full potential.

Common Disorders Among Children

Anxiety Disorders (i.e., social anxiety, generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders) – Children with anxiety disorders respond to certain things or situations with fear and dread. The child’s persistent fears, worries or anxiety often disrupt their ability to participate in play, school or typical age-appropriate social events.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – Compared with most children their age, children with ADHD have difficulty with concentration, attention, following orders, impulsive behaviors or hyperactivity. Children with ADHD may struggle with low self-esteem, troubled relationships or poor school performance.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – Although the severity varies widely, ASD children often find communicating and interacting with others difficult. They often have restricted interests or engage in repetitive behaviors. This condition appears in early childhood—typically before age 3.

Eating Disorders (i.e., anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating) – Children with eating disorders become preoccupied with an ideal body type. Their unhealthy ideas about weight lead to unsafe eating and dieting habits. These habits can cause emotional and social dysfunction, as well as life-threatening physical complications.

Depression – Children with depression persistently feel sad, lose interest in things they used to enjoy or feel helpless in situations they can change. Depression can disrupt a child’s ability to function in school and interact with others.

Bipolar Disorder – A child with this disorder displays noticeable and, often, 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 characterized by prolonged emotional distress, anxiety, distressing memories, nightmares and disruptive behavior in response to violence, abuse, injury or other traumatic events. PTSD can affect children of all ages and typically presents after a stressful event.

Warning Signs to Watch For

»Severely out-of-control behavior that can be harmful to themselves or others
»Persistent disobedience or aggression
»Drastic changes in mood, behavior or personality that cause relational problems
»Outbursts or extreme irritability
»Persistent sadness for two or more weeks
»Lack of or issues with communication
»Decreased interest in activities
»Withdrawing from or avoiding social interactions
»Self-harm or talking about hurting oneself
»Intense fear or anxiety that interferes with daily activities. May be sudden with no apparent cause and include physical symptoms.
»Changes in eating habits (not eating, throwing up or using laxatives)
»Abnormal weight loss
»Difficulty sleeping
»Persistent nightmares
»Extreme difficulty concentrating or staying still
»Decline in academic performance/attendance
»Drug/alcohol use

How to Help

The first step to help a child with mental illness symptoms is to speak to a doctor. The physician may refer them to a specialist, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, clinical social worker or psychiatric nurse. Keep in mind that diagnosing mental illness in children can take time because normal development varies, and children may have trouble understanding or expressing their feelings. The child’s healthcare provider may change or refine a diagnosis over time. Once a child is diagnosed with a mental condition, common treatment options include psychotherapy and medication.

Tips for Parents

Parents play a key role in supporting their child’s treatment plan. It is helpful for parents to:

  1. Learn about their child’s illness.
  2. Ask a mental health professional for advice on responding to the child and any problematic behaviors.
  3. Consider family counseling that includes all family members in the treatment plan.
  4. Enroll in parent training programs designed for parents of children with a mental illness.
  5. Explore stress management techniques to help them respond calmly.
  6. Seek ways to relax and have fun with their child.
  7. Praise their child’s strengths and abilities.
  8. Work with their child’s school to secure the necessary support.

Mental illness can be confusing for children, especially when they do not understand what is happening or have the communication skills to seek help. While it may be difficult for parents to recognize or accept their child’s ailment, early intervention can prevent the illness from worsening and impacting the child’s development.