Recognizing Signs of Mental Illness in Children

Parents are rarely prepared to recognize and accept the signs of mental health problems in their child. The fact is that just like adults, many children, including toddlers and even infants, are plagued with many types of mental health issues. It is believed that nearly one in every five children is having some form of mental illness. For many of these children, as they grow, this disorder starts to interfere with their daily lives more and more. Sadly, more than half of these affected children do not receive any type of treatment for their mental health problems from a certified mental health professional. Visible physical wounds are easy to recognize, but often parents are left feeling confused and unsure about how to deal with mental health problems. It is possible to identify signs of mental illness in children if you pay attention to some of the warning signs. Let us take a moment to understand some of these warning signs of mental illness in children.

Recognizing Signs of Mental Illness in Children

Common Mental Health Conditions Affecting Children

To understand what signs to watch out for, it is first essential to know the common types of mental health conditions that afflict children. It is possible for children to develop the same mental health conditions as adults, but these conditions are often expressed differently. For example, children who have depression are more likely to show more irritability and lash out more than a depressed adult would. Some of the common mental health conditions affecting children include.

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). This is one of the most common conditions that affect children. Symptoms include having difficulty paying attention, impulsive behavior, and hyperactivity. Problems at schools are also common in children who have ADHD.

Anxiety disorders. Children suffering from anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder, tend to experience anxiety as a persistent problem and not how adults experience anxiety. This starts to interfere with their daily activities, especially school work. While a little bit of worry and stress is a part of every child’s typical experience, but when this anxiety and stress start making it difficult for a child to learn and function normally, then you should consider whether an anxiety disorder is at fault.

ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Autism spectrum disorder is not just a mental health problem. It is a severe developmental condition that starts becoming apparent in early childhood, usually before the child even reaches the age of 3 years. Symptoms and severity of ASD vary, but this condition is always known to have a profound impact on the child’s ability to interact and communicate with others.

Mood Disorders. Depression and bipolar depression are mood disorders that can impact children as well. These disorders cause a child to feel a persisting feeling of sadness accompanied by extreme mood swings.

Schizophrenia. This is a chronic mental health disease that can make a child lose touch with reality, a situation known as psychosis. Schizophrenia is usually more apparent in late teens.

Recognizing Signs of Mental Illness in Children

Warning signs that a child is dealing with a mental health condition are described below.

Mood Swings. Parents should look out for feelings of withdrawal or sadness that last for at least two weeks or more. Severe mood swings that are causing problems in relationships at home and in school should also be taken as a warning sign.

Behavioral Changes. These changes include a drastic change in their behavior or personality, including dangerous and out-of-control behavior. This is usually also termed as self-destroying behavior. Frequent fights, using weapons and expressing a desire to badly harm others are also warning signs.

Intense Feelings. Intense feelings of overwhelming fear that have no apparent reason are to be watched out for. Sometimes these feelings can also be accompanied by a racing heart or fast breathing. Worries or fears will become intense enough that they start to interfere with the child’s day-to-day activities.

Difficulty Concentrating. This is usually observed at school. Signs that indicate that the child is having trouble focusing or in sitting still and is leading to a poor performance in school are to be taken as warning signs of a potential mental illness.

Physical Symptoms. Unlike adults, children who have a mental health disorder are likely to develop severe headaches and/or stomachaches, rather than displaying anxiety or sadness. Unexplained weight loss or a sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting, or even the use of laxatives, could be indicating an eating disorder.

Physical Harm. In some cases, a mental health condition can cause a child to self-harm or self-injury. This refers to an act of deliberately harming their own body, including burning or cutting themselves. Children who have a mental health illness may also attempt suicide or develop suicidal thoughts.

Drug or Substance Abuse. Some children may turn towards drug use or alcohol abuse in an attempt to cope with their feelings.

Some other common warning signs that indicate a mental health illness include.

  • The child is having difficulties at school.
  • The child is bullying or hitting other children.
  • The child attempts to injure/harm himself/herself.
  • The child starts avoiding family and friends.
  • The child starts to experience frequent and prolonged bad moods.
  • The child lacks the motivation or energy to do anything.
  • The child is having difficulty sleeping.
  • The child is having too many nightmares.
  • The child suddenly has many physical complaints.
  • The child starts to neglect their appearance.
  • The child becomes obsessed with his/her weight, appearance, or shape.
  • The child starts to eat significantly less or more than usual.

What To Do If You Suspect your Child HAS a Mental Health Condition?

If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, then you must consult your family doctor or your child’s pediatrician at the earliest. Discuss your child’s behavioral changes and what worries you about their changed personality. Also consider talking to your child’s teacher, their friends, loved ones, or any other caregivers to understand if they have also noticed any changes in your child’s behavior recently. Also, share this information with your doctor.

It is always better to voice your concerns to your child’s pediatrician rather than remain in doubt. Keep in mind that your child’s mental health challenges are in no way a reflection of your parenting or you.

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:November 22, 2021

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