Recognizing Child Mental Health Symptoms

Childhood mental health is a complex field. While the diagnoses use the same names as mental health disorders for adults, the manifestations are often specific to children. Due to differences in presentation, mental health in children commonly goes undiagnosed and untreated.

Thankfully, there are signs of children’s mental health issues that are easy to spot once you know what to look for. Whether you’re a parent, a caregiver, a teacher, a coach, a family member or in another role that involves regular interaction with kids, your attention and intervention could change a life.

Common mental health issues in children

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavioral concerns and depression are the most common mental health issues in children. These conditions may occur on their own, or a child could be affected by more than one disorder at a time.

Mental health concerns are on the rise in the United States, with an increase in anxiety and depression over the previous few decades. Children’s mental health issues are often brushed under the rug with claims that the behavior is simply a phase or “they’ll grow out of it,” but the dysfunction in social, emotional and physical health that is caused by these conditions warrants serious attention.

Signs of children’s mental health issues

Being in a position where you’re wondering whether a child in your life is struggling with mental illness can be a tricky situation. You may feel unqualified or in an inappropriate role to say something. The good news is that the knowledge you need is right at your fingertips and there are common child mental health symptoms that anyone can recognize.

  • An inability to complete daily tasks
  • Failure to make and maintain close friendships
  • Difficulties in school
  • Poor academic performance
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Behavioral outbursts
  • Easily provoked to extreme anger
  • Being inconsolable
  • Being overwhelmed with fear and worry
  • Struggling to be away from parents for even a short amount of time
  • Persistent sadness
  • Self-isolation
  • Hurting oneself or someone else
  • Being interested in material that is inappropriate for their age
  • Ruminating on specific topics that are dark or scary
  • Drastic changes in mood
  • Sudden changes in eating habits or an inability to gain weight
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares

To find more resources on recognizing child mental health issues, check out the CDC’s developmental milestones by age or Mayo Clinic’s page on children’s health.

Intervening for mental health in children

Depending on your role, you’ll need to take certain steps if you’ve identified a child in your life is struggling with mental health concerns. Here are some steps you’ll want to take to make a positive impact.

  1. Inform the parent or caregiver: if you’re not the primary caregiver yourself, your best bet is to go straight to the parent and express signs you’ve noticed. Whether you mention a specific diagnosis yourself is up to your judgment, but reporting signs will be the most effective tool to spur further action.
  2. Get the school involved: if your child attends a publicly funded school, services should be available to conduct a free socio-emotional assessment. The school should also have resources like counseling to help with functional performance in school and life.
  3. Get a diagnosis: whether or not your school conducts a formal evaluation, a third party assessment from a clinical perspective can provide you with an accurate diagnosis and access to psychiatric care and medication if necessary.
  4. Start therapy: the first line of defense for any children’s mental health issues is therapy, and the sooner your child starts, the better. In therapy, depending on age level and cognitive ability, children will learn emotional awareness, emotional regulation, coping skills, social development, distress tolerance and so much more.
  5. Do the homework: your child’s treatment team will likely recommend some lifestyle changes to adopt in the home environment. Whatever your role is, supporting those changes and maintaining consistency with them is crucial to their success.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember as you intervene to address mental health in children is this: don’t skip over childhood. Having a child in your life struggling with mental health issues is tough. You may fall into a pattern of treating him or her like an adult because mental health disorders tend to age people.

Don’t forget to treat the child in your life with love and compassion, forgiving behaviors that stem from deeper issues. Engage in play and normal childhood activities, and don’t forget that those personal conversations still matter.

Get help now

If a child in your life is faced with mental health challenges, ranging from eating disorders to separation anxiety, from depression to conduct issues, help is just a phone call away. Mazzitti & Sullivan can walk with you and help you and your child get the best care available. Call now to get the care you’ve been looking for.