Mental illness in children can be super hard to identify since the symptoms are often different than they are in adults. However, because of this the children often go untreated whereas they would have benefited greatly. These children often then go on to grow into adults with severe mental issues, at a point when they’re harder to treat. So understanding the warning signs of mental illness in children can only help you. First things first, what is a mental illness ?
What is a mental illness ?
Mental health in general is defined as “the overall wellness of how you think, regulate your feelings and behave.” So when you have a mental illness (sometimes called a mental health disorder) it means that the way you think, the way you feel and how you behave has been disrupted so much that it’s causing distress and affecting your ability to function.
With children, mental illnesses are generally defined as “delays or disruptions in developing age-appropriate thinking, behaviors, social skills or regulation of emotions.”
Barriers to treatment
It can be difficult to decipher if your child is acting out, if they have a mental illness or just a healthy delay because children develop differently in different environments and they often do not yet know how to verbalize exactly what they’re thinking, feeling or seeing. Additionally, symptoms often correlate with the child’s age so it can be hard to pinpoint if a behavior is a new stage or truly an issue.
There are also often a lot of concerns from parent surrounding the stigma of a child receiving mental health care. They may worry that the additional help means that they’ve failed as a parent or that their child will be viewed as an ‘other’ if people know that they have to receive treatment. It’s important to understand that early treatment in a child’s life who is suffering from a mental illness will make the difference in them being a fully functioning adult vs a dysfunctional adult.
What are the warning signs ?
There are several different mental illnesses that a child could end up getting diagnosed with but many of the warning signs are the same. Which diagnosis they receive would depend on a symptoms severity, its frequency and the child’s age. These warning signs or symptoms include:
- Feeling sad for more than two weeks
- Withdrawing from or trying to completely avoid social interactions
- Talking about or actually intentionally hurting themselves
- Being fascinated with death and/or suicide
- Angry outbursts or extreme irritability
- Seeming out of control
- Drastic changes in mood or personality
- Sudden changes in eating habits
- Rapid weight loss or gain
- Persistent headaches or bellyaches
- Trouble concentrating
- Changes in academic performance
- Avoiding or missing school
Now that you know the warning signs, what should you do if you recognize them ?
As mentioned above, it can be difficult to tell if many of these warning signs are part of the motions of childhood or if there’s something really wrong. Kids of all ages often test the limits with different caregivers to see where boundaries lie so it’s important not to make a judgement too soon based off how your child acts when they’re around you.
Talk to your child’s teacher, close friends, relatives and really anyone that they spend time with to see if any of them have noticed any changes. Then speak with your child’s pediatrician. They’ll be able to tell you from a professional standpoint and with more personalization as someone who has watched your child’s growth whether or not you should take your child to see a mental health professional.
It’s important to note that your child’s pediatrician cannot diagnose your child with a mental health disorder. Their job is to guide you to someone who can. Medical professionals who can diagnose your child include psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers and psychiatric nurses. Their evaluation process may include:
- A complete medical exam
- Medical history
- History of physical and emotional trauma
- Family history of both mental and physical health
- Review of symptoms and parental concerns
- A timeline of your child’s developmental progress
- Academic history
- An interview with the child’s primary care givers
- Direct conversations with or observations of the child
- Paper or electronic questionnaires for the child and their caregiver alike
Getting a diagnose can really take some time since children have trouble understanding and verbalizing how they feel. This can cause the medical professional to change their diagnosis over time as they gain more insight as the child learns to express themself more accurately.
After spending time with mental health professionals and speaking to the people in your children’s life you may end up with one of these diagnoses:
- Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD
- An eating disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Or very rarely, schizophrenia
You will be recommended psychotherapy and/or medication. Psychotherapy with children often includes tons of play time and gentle questioning. During sessions your child should learn how to talk about their thoughts and feelings, what they should do about them and how to cope when ill thoughts and feelings arise.
How can you help outside of treatment ?
Often times your child’s progress in treatment will depend on you following up with techniques they’ve learned in treatment while at home. Take time to learn about the illness and how it affects them. Seek ways in which you can make your child feel special, encourage them to relax and engage in fun. Praise your child’s strength and ability and work with their school to secure necessary support as well.