The topic of children and mental health issues deserves the deepest of care and respect. An inaccurate diagnosis can be crippling for a child and his/her family because it can set things in motion that are difficult or impossible to erase such as a negative stigma, lack of confidence, and a dependence on unnecessary medication.
That said, it’s equally damaging to ignore signs of a child’s mental health issues under the guise of, “I’m sure this phase will pass…,” which prevents your child (and your family) from getting the support s/he needs.
Find a pediatric mental health professional who is not eager to diagnose/prescribe, but who carefully gets to know your child and the family, to establish an accurate assessment and care plan.
And don’t forget: the pandemic’s social distancing and distance learning restrictions pose intense challenges for children’s mental health – so this is a time to exercise caution and persistence when determining what if anything may be going on for your child in terms of mental health.
Read, Helping Your Children to Cope with Our New Normal, for more about that.
Potential Child Mental Health Issues Deserve Tender Care
Firstly, it’s not always easy or recommended to diagnose a child or teen with mental health issues because their brains are undergoing rapid-fire development, biochemical changes, and then the natural hormone fluctuations as the result of puberty (which can begin as young as 7 or 8). Also, intelligent young children can be falsely diagnosed with oppositional defiance, social disorders, or ADHD simply because their emotional IQ is a bit behind their intelligence level which leads to very smart higher level thinking with the reactionary behavior of a toddler.
Teens can be emotionally erratic, impulsive and intense across the emotional spectrum. Highly sensitive children experience feelings far more intensely than their peers and that can be alarming for parents. Also worth noting, gifted children or kids struggling with learning disabilities (both of whom have special needs) are inaccurately diagnosed with ADD/ADHD at much higher rates than their peers, which has more to do with teachers/administrators not understanding giftedness than the children actually having ADHD or ADD.
7 Signs Your Child May Have a Mental Health Issue
All that to say, while the following signs of mental health issues in children are legitimate, high-quality assessment is key to accurately identifying what may be the issue and how to treat it with the least amount of pharmaceutical intervention as possible.
1. Feeling inconsolably sad or withdrawn for three weeks or more
While bouts of sadness are completely normal, as are periods of social withdrawal, a child who is consistently sad and withdrawn or who cries/emotes inconsolably for two to three weeks should speak to a professional.
2. Speaking about wanting to die, threatening suicide, or attempting to end his/her life
There are few children who try to commit suicide without sending up some red flags first. Most say something about their feelings or intentions, and these should be taken very seriously. If your child is chronically depressed or suicidal, swift mental health support is critical to establishing the risk and putting a care plan into place.
If s/he is doing it more for attention, the help you seek will be a wakeup call about the seriousness of that statement (and a loving reminder that you are listening, paying attention, and dedicated to their loving care).
3. Being violent with others, threatening violence, or self-harm
As with suicide, these threats and actions need to be taken seriously from the beginning. The sooner the situation is assessed, the sooner you’ll have a clearer idea of what is going on. Assuming it’s all a bluff can be detrimental to the wellbeing of your child, other family members, or members of the community.
4. Causing self-harm
Children who intentionally harm themselves physically are unable to release their overwhelmingly “negative” feelings (sadness, grief, anger, shame, etc.) on their own, so they use physical harm as a way to connect to the pain. Cutting is a prime example of this (read NAMI’s page on Self-Harm to learn more).
Children who use cutting or other extreme types of self-harm fare best when working with a therapist who specializes in that issue, and in groups of children who understand the experience. Otherwise, they feel further ostracized.
5. Not eating, using laxatives, throwing up after meals, moving food around on the plate…
Eating disorders are on the most common mental health issues affecting adolescents, teens, and young adults. And, contrary to popular belief, males are equally susceptible to developing eating disorders as females as a result of body image pressure, societal norms, and some athletic regulations.
Any excuses that your teen isn’t hungry, doesn’t have an appetite, shoveling food around without eating it, binging on junk food, going to the toilet after eating, unusual weight loss or excessive exercise, etc., should be brought to your pediatrician’s attention. Eating disorders become a compulsive (addictive) behavior so the sooner it is caught and turned around, the easier it is for your child to escape the cycle before it becomes more deeply ingrained and more difficult to reverse and treat.
6. Overwhelming anxiety, panic attacks, unwillingness to go to school, etc.
Sometimes your child’s anxiety is easier to trace if you pay attention, ask the right questions, or notice patterns. For example, wanting to skip school due to anxiety may be more connected to social issues, test anxiety, fear about a public presentation in a class, etc. Those are all discussion-worthy and you can support your child in cultivating coping strategies.
Then there is true, overwhelming anxiety, which can be crippling for children and adults both. Work as a family to practice stress management skills, check in on their social media life, and make sure everyone is getting enough sleep, which goes a long way towards mood regulation, de-stressing, and hormone regulation.
7. Using drugs or alcohol (including vaping)
All of these are signs that your teen is not able to cope with his/her emotions OR s/he isn’t able to cope with peer pressure and is on the way to developing an addiction that will be more impossible to manage the longer it goes on.
Here at Women’s Health Associates, we feel everyone benefits from having a licensed, professional therapist they can trust on-hand. If your child exhibits any of the above signs of mental health issues, speak to his/her pediatrician or give us a call at (913) 677-3113. We can refer you to excellent mental health professionals who specialize in children and teens.