Just like adults, children are vulnerable to developing problems with mental health. In many ways, they are more susceptible because they do not have the benefit of wisdom and life experience. Having close and genuinely supportive relationships with their parents and caregivers is perhaps the most critical factor that protects children and youth from mental health problems.
For a child or adolescent, mental health means:
- Some things are precious to me
- The future fills me with hope
- I am the master of my destiny
- I like myself
- I am satisfied or happy with my life
- I know there are people who care about me
For a child or teenager, a mental health problem (or a mental illness), it could mean:
- It seems like nobody cares about me
- I am often sad, irritable, worried or angry
- I do not love myself
- I can’t see anything good in the future
- I’m helpless, I’ve lost control of my life
Everyone feels sad or irritated at times. But when these emotions are so robust that your child has a hard time dealing with them at school or home, he may have a mental health problem.
Are mental health problems common in children and youth?
Now a days, mental health problems have become more common than you might imagine. They affect 1 in 5 children and adolescents.
But most people who need professional help don’t get it. Only 1 in 6 children and adolescents receive the support they need. It is as if only 1 in 6 people who have a fracture get treated.
Mental illness has very negative consequences for children, adolescents, and the people who care for them. For example, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-19-year-olds.
What are the causes of mental illness in children?
A combination of factors causes mental and physical illnesses:
- Inheritance: What we are, depends a lot on our genes; these genes come from our parents, and we do not influence them. Since some children get cancer (for reasons beyond their control), others are at higher risk for a mental health problem.
- Family history: Children and adolescents with a family member who has had depression or anxiety in the past are at higher risk of developing it as well.
- Our lifestyle: Are we eating well? Are we exercising? Are we taking too much alcohol? Do we express our emotions constructively?
- Our reactions to life events: Stressful situations can lead to mental and physical illnesses. A child who grows up in a family where there is stress, abuse, or neglect is at a much higher risk than others for developing mental health problems.
- Our resources: Do we have enough money? Satisfying work? Good accommodation? Opportunities to flourish? Friends and family to lean on?
Children Mental Health: Signs and Symptoms
Almost 70% of mental health problems start in childhood or adolescence. It is why early detection and intervention are essential and can lead to improved educational outcomes and health later in life. Learn to recognize the signs that a child may need mental health support.
Signs of a mental health disorder in children.
Many children and adolescents will change their mood, behavior, and outlook during normal development. They can, in particular:
- Achieve significantly worse academic results
- Avoid their friends and family
- The child or adolescent talks about suicide or feels hopeless
- Often having fits of anger and rage
- Changing eating and sleeping habits
- Drink a lot of alcohol or use illicit substances
- Stop doing the activities they liked
- Worry constantly
- Many physical problems (e.g., headache or stomach ache) that the doctor cannot find the cause of
- Have frequent mood swings
- Neglect their appearance
- Be obsessed with their weight
- Lack of energy or motivation
- Adopt risky behavior
- Feel depressed
But these characteristics and behaviors may indicate the existence of an underlying mental disorder if they:
- Are intense
- Last a long time
- Are inappropriate for the child’s age
- Disrupt the child’s life
The symptoms of mental disorders closely resemble the feelings commonly experienced by children: sadness, anger, distrust, excitement, introversion, and loneliness.
The distinction between a disorder and a normal feeling is the intensity of the perception, which becomes such that it can disrupt the child’s daily activities and cause real pain.
Therefore, doctors and parents must be cautious to determine when a child’s thoughts and emotions cease to be normal and become pathological.
How are mental disorders diagnosed in children?
There is no test to authorize the diagnosis of a mental disorder. Doctors depend on an interview with the child or adolescent and on observations of parents and teachers, as well as those of the doctors themselves during the consultation, to determine if a mental disorder is present.
At times, doctors refer the child to a mental health specialist who is trained to diagnose and treat mental disorders in children and adolescents. These specialists can use interviews and specially designed tools to assess the child.
What are the most common mental health problems in children and adolescents?
Here are the most general mental health disorders in children and youth:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – also called attention deficit disorder (ADD)
- Depression and other mood disorders
- Eating disorders
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (most common)
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder
When a child or youth has a physical illness or injury, their parents seek professional help to get them the medical treatment they need. When a child or youth shows symptoms of a mental disorder, they need their parents to have the same reaction.
Most adult mental health problems took root during those young years. Remember, it is essential to pay attention to early signs and symptoms and get help quickly.
Less frequently, conduct disorders:
Neurological developmental disorders influence both mental health and a child’s overall development. These diseases include:
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Rett syndrome
- Fragile X syndrome
- DiGeorge Syndrome
- Mitochondrial disorders
Autism spectrum disorders can involve some combination of reduced social interactions, limited interests, developmental and language use abnormalities, and in some cases, intellectual disability. Rett syndrome, a genetic condition, causes similar symptoms, including difficulty with social skills and communication.
Tips for maintaining the mental health of children:
- Set an example. Children should see us expressing our feelings, discussing a problem with our partner, or seeing things from someone else’s point of view.
- Encourage a healthy lifestyle. Serve healthy foods, make sure children and teens get enough sleep, and get enough exercise.
- Ask the children and teens if their day went well. When they’ve done something right, tell them (e.g., when they try very hard, are patient or kind, or getting better).
- Concentrate on the exertion rather than the result. If something is bothering or stressing your child, ask if he needs help solving the problem.
- Ask the children and teens how they feel. Some children don’t always know how to express themselves. Help your child to articulate and name his emotions.
- Help them comprehend things from another point of view. Children need to be set an example (e.g., “My boss was in a terrible mood today, but she has to take care of her mother, and it is not easy for her”).
- Teach children to ask for help and support when they need it.
- Always take children’s concerns seriously. Children and teens might think that their emotions don’t matter if they are neglected.
- Spend quality time with them to build a positive relationship based on trust.
- Help them cope with stress and deal with it positively.
- Have expectations and plan for appropriate limits and penalties for their behavior.
Even when we strive to promote mental health, our children or we can still have a mental illness.
What can parents do?
If you are concerned about your child, listen to your gut feelings. Gather as much information as possible. You are probably the best person to know if your child’s behavior needs more attention. Get an appointment with a trusted professional with solid training.
Talk to your child about the behaviors that worry you the most. Listen to your child’s response. Let him talk without interrupting. Tell your child and let him know that you are there to help him solve difficult problems.
Make an appointment with a trusted, well-trained professional to talk about your concerns and find out how to get help. You are not alone. Help is available.