Many everyday stresses can cause changes in your child’s behavior. It is important to be able to tell the difference between typical behavior changes and those associated with more serious problems. Research shows that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.
Symptoms of Mental Health Issues in Children
Every member of a family is affected by tragedy or extreme stress, even the youngest child. It’s normal for stress to cause a child to be upset. Remember this if you see mental, emotional, or behavioral symptoms in your child. If it takes more than one month for your child to get used to a situation, or if your child has severe reactions, talk to your child’s doctor.
Pay special attention to children’s behaviors that include:
- Problems across a variety of settings, such as at school, at home, or with peers
- Changes in appetite or sleep
- Social withdrawal, or fearful behavior toward things your child normally is not afraid of
- Returning to behaviors more common in younger children, such as bed-wetting, for a long time
- Signs of being upset, such as sadness or tearfulness
- Signs of self-destructive behavior, such as head-banging, or a tendency to get hurt often
- Repeated thoughts of death.
- Check your child’s response to stress. Take note if he or she gets better with time or if professional care is needed. Stressful events are challenging, but they give you a chance to teach your child important ways to cope.
Diagnosing Mental Health Issues in Children
Common mental health issues affecting children may include anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.
Just like adults, children with mental illness are diagnosed after a doctor or mental health specialist carefully observes signs and symptoms.
To arrive at a diagnosis, a doctor will:
- Take a history of any important medical problems
- Take a history of the problem as well as a history of your child’s development
- Take a family history of mental disorders
- Ask if the child has experienced physical or psychological traumas, such as a natural disaster, or situations that may cause stress, such as a death in the family
- Consider reports from parents and other caretakers or teachers.
As parents and caregivers know, children are constantly changing and growing. Diagnosis and treatment must be viewed with these changes in mind. While some problems are short-lived and don’t need treatment, others are ongoing and may be very serious. In either case, more information will help you understand treatment choices and manage the disorder or problem most effectively.
Treatment for Children’s Mental Health Issues
Psychosocial or “talk therapy” can be very effective alone and in combination with medications. Children receiving medication must be monitored closely by a psychiatrist. Therapies that teach parents and children coping strategies can also be effective.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that can be used with children. It has been widely studied and is an effective treatment for a number of conditions, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social anxiety. A person in CBT learns to change distorted thinking patterns and unhealthy behavior. Children can receive CBT with or without their parents, as well as in a group setting.
Some children benefit from a combination of different psychosocial approaches. An example is behavioral parent management training in combination with CBT for the child. In other cases, a combination of medication and psychosocial therapies may be most effective.
What else can I do to help my child?
Children with mental illness need guidance and understanding from their parents and teachers. Mental health professionals can counsel the child and family to help everyone develop new skills, attitudes, and ways of relating to each other.
Parents can also help by taking part in parenting skills training. This helps parents learn how to handle difficult situations and behaviors. Training encourages parents to share a pleasant or relaxing activity with their child, to notice and point out what their child does well, and to praise their child’s strengths and abilities. Parents may also learn to arrange family situations in more positive ways. Also, parents may benefit from learning stress-management techniques to help them deal with frustration and respond calmly to their child’s behavior. Counseling for the whole family may also help.