We think of mental health problems as being exclusive to adults — but depression, anxiety, eating disorders and a host of other mental health issues can affect children as well.
And we’re often reluctant to discuss the possibility that a child has a mental health issue for the same reason we often don’t discuss the matter among adults: stigma. Fortunately, as we make gains in treating mental health problems and the true prevalence of mental health in our communities becomes clearer, more people are ready to accept and work through mental health issues.
It’s important to realize that being open and honest about the possibility of mental health problems among children is vital to helping them live a healthy, productive life. Understand that schools, clergy, childcare professionals and others who work with children are also gaining insight into the problems these children face and are eager to work with parents to help.
Diagnosing mental health problems in children can be difficult
If you’ve ever spent time around any two children, you can surmise that no two children are alike.
Children grow and develop differently — even siblings living in the same household.
One way we look for mental health issues in children is by looking for delays in development or disruptions in age-appropriate thinking. These can include changing behaviors, a deficit in social skills or trouble controlling their emotions.
Of course, most children deal with these issues from time to time — it’s when these problems disrupt a child’s ability to function that we should be concerned that there’s more going on.
In addition, children may lack the vocabulary or the ability to truly describe what they’re feeling or experiencing. Children are also learning to cope with life events that can be stressful for adults as well — marital problems like divorce, moving to a new town, adapting to a new teacher, etc.
Behaviors to watch for in children
While occasional tantrums, acts of defiance and a lack of impulse control are normal childhood traits, researchers and mental health experts generally agree that a persistent pattern of any of the following behaviors could be cause for concern:
- Severe mood swings – Sudden changes in the way a child feels — joyous one moment, melancholy the next, angry a moment later — can impact their relationships with peers, siblings, educators and parents. You may find yourself unable to predict how the child will feel from moment to moment.
- Drastic personality changes – A child who is ordinarily outgoing and social may suddenly become withdrawn, or a usually cautious child may begin to demonstrate riskier behaviors.
- Persistent sadness or withdrawal – The child may seem very sad or withdraw from activities they usually enjoy for two or more weeks.
- Dangerous out-of-control behavior – Does the child throw things when they’re mad? Hit others? Hit themselves? Has the child used a weapon or expressed an interest in hurting others?
- Self-harm or suicide – If the child may participate in risky behavior, self-harm (cutting, for instance) or express interest in suicide. They may even have made plans for how to hurt or kill themselves.
- Significant worries or overwhelming fears – These concerns may seem inconsequential or unusual, but they can interfere with the child’s daily activities. Children may also say that they feel suddenly terrified, complete with fast breathing and an accelerated heartbeat.
- Signs of an eating disorder – A child may begin refusing food, making themselves throw up or taking laxatives to lose weight.
- Significant problems with concentration – Daydreaming or losing focus is a common childhood trait, but you may be concerned if the inability to concentrate or even sit still begins causing issues with school or even activities they usually enjoy, like reading, playing videogames or sports.
- Using drugs or alcohol – Are you finding drugs or paraphernalia in their room or in their bookbag? Have you caught them drinking or suspect they have been?
When to get mental health help for your child
This list is not comprehensive. If ever you are worried about a child’s mental wellbeing, it’s perfectly OK to reach out to their pediatrician or other primary care provider, a school counselor or to Willowbrooke at Tanner directly.
We offer mental health services for children age 5 and older — including free mental health screenings that connect you to the services and resources you and your child need. We’ve also worked with many school systems throughout west Georgia to embed mental health professionals who can offer continuing care.
Find the help you need at WillowbrookeAtTanner.org or schedule a screening at 770-812-3266.