Warning Signs Signal Mental Health Issues In Children And Adolescents

Children go through different stages in their life that can alter how they perceive and interact with the world. Changes in behaviors and attitudes may be seen as “just a stage” or brushed off with hopes that “it’ll go away on its own.” However, these all too common phrases could potentially mask serious signs of a mental illness.
In the first report on the prevalence of specific mental disorders among American children ages three to 17, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that up to one out of five children have a mental disorder.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), disruptive behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder (OOD) and conduct disorder (CO), autism spectrum disorders, mood and anxiety disorders like depression, substance use disorders, and Tourette’s were among the most prevalent mental diseases found in the target age group.
Parents can reduce the severity of childhood mental health illnesses by paying attention to common warning signs in children and seeking help when appropriate. Parents should go with their intuition when they see “something is not quite right” in their kids.
Do you know what symptoms to look for when a child exhibits peculiar behaviors and attitudes?
Below, find five warning signs of common mental health disorders in childhood.
1. Long-lasting mood swings.
A change in mood that lasts for two weeks can be a strong indicator of a serious mental disorder in a child. These mood swings which usually range from being hyperactive to being melancholy within a short time span with no substantial reason can be an early sign of bipolar disorder or manic-depressive illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the “up” or mania children feel and the “down” or depression is so powerful that it can interfere with a child’s academic and social life.

2. Excessive fears or worries.
Fears and worries in children are common throughout early childhood. It is normal for toddlers to fear the dark, imaginary creatures like “the boogie man,” and being separated from their legal guardians. For grade-school children, being anxious before school performance and worrying about social acceptance among peers are seen as healthy responses that continue into adulthood. However, when these normal aged-based fears become so excessive that they interfere with a child’s daily functions, it is time to have an intervention. Children who are diagnosed with anxiety often express a specific worry or fear says the AACAP. Physical complaints are often accompanied by the worry or fear communicated by the child, which helps clinicians diagnose specific anxiety disorders. 

3. Extreme behavioral changes.
Childhood defiance and questioning authority are also common behaviors in kids. Often times this behavior is motivated by the thrill of testing whether they can really get away with something without their parents’ blessing. However, is the child just experimenting with independence or is there a more serious issue? Oppositional defiant disorder (OOD), on average, begins when a child is eight years old and usually starts before the early teen years, according to the Mayo Clinic. Mental health illnesses that are closely related to sporadic behavioral changes include ADHD, anxiety, bipolar, and depression.

4. Physical changes, such as weight gain or loss.
A sudden change in physical appearance that does not follow from puberty may be a strong indicator that a child is suffering from a disorder. Similarly, weight loss brought on by lack of appetite may be an early sign of depression. Body changes brought on by alcohol or drugs to “self-medicate” are symptomatic of depressed youth, signaling a lack of concern for or attention to their appearance.

5. Lack of concentration.
Children who have extreme difficulty concentrating could potentially have a mental disorder. It is important to distinguish a child who merely wants to watch his or her favorite television show instead of doing homework, versus a child who is incapable of focusing on their favorite TV show. The inability to concentrate on a simple task is a symptom of ADHD or depression. Trouble concentrating in a child with a disorder often manifests in their academic and social life.

These five warning signs of common mental health problems can equip a parent to seek the help a child deserves.

Submitted by John Berkowitz, LCSW, MSEDS, Clinical director at the Family Healing Center.

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