Many mental conditions begin to show themselves during childhood and adolescence. However, the difficulty in identifying the signs and symptoms of mental illness in children means many children do not receive the treatment they need.
Taking action as soon as you notice the signs of a mental condition in your child can make the condition easier to treat.
As a parent, the idea of your child suffering from a mental health condition can be difficult to deal with. You may struggle to accept that your child needs help, and your own life may be negatively impacted by your child’s mental health. However, finding help may be easier than you think. There are many strategies you can use to communicate with and support your child, keeping your family and parent-child relationship healthy. Do not allow shame or fear over your child’s condition prevent you from seeking the help he or she needs. More information about helping your child’s mental health is covered below.
Identifying Mental Conditions in Children
It can be difficult to identify the signs of a mental condition in your child, as children develop at different rates and in different ways. Troubled behavior can sometimes be a part of this development or a reaction to an external change. However, if you suspect your child might have a mental condition, look for the following warning signs:
- Sadness and withdrawal from social connections, lasting more than two weeks.
- Severe changes in your child’s mood or in his or her personality and behavior.
- Intense, unexplained feelings such as fear accompanied by a racing heart.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Behaviors more common to younger children, such as bedwetting.
- Changes in sleeping patterns or appetite, or unexplained weight loss.
- Physical symptoms, such as an unexplained headache or stomach ache.
- Self-harming behaviors, including cutting, head-banging and thoughts of death or suicide. This could present as a higher rate of injury or accidents.
- Out-of-control behavior or aggression, possibly hurting others.
- Substance abuse.
When to Find Help
You will need to decide whether or not to seek out professional help for your child. If your child has recently gone through an upsetting experience such as parental divorce, the death of a loved one, a new sibling or changing schools, you may want to wait. Some signs must continue over a period of weeks or months to be considered symptoms. This waiting, however, should be spent actively monitoring your child’s behavior. Of course, if your child is having trouble coping with difficult life experiences, it may be helpful to get mental health counseling anyway.
If the symptoms begin to interfere with your child’s life and development, possibly even putting him or her at risk of harm, it is time to get help. This is especially the case if your child is self-harming, suicidal or has any kind of eating disorder. If mental health issues run in your family, the risk is also greater, and you should seek help as soon as you can.
Make sure to keep an open dialogue with your partner about your child’s condition. The two of you should be in agreement about what kind of help to seek for your child and when it will be time to take action.
Getting a Diagnosis
Start by speaking to your child’s doctor. You will need to describe the signs and symptoms you have noticed. It can be worth speaking with your child’s teachers, friends or other caregivers about whether they have noticed any signs as well. Your child’s doctor may recommend a specialist who will make a formal diagnosis, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, psychiatric nurse, social worker or therapist. You may need to search for a specialist who has experience in treating your child’s particular behaviors.
Because of the difficulty children can have in verbalizing or expressing their emotions, diagnosing mental conditions can be very difficult. The signs are often very different to those seen in adults. The doctor or mental health professional will look at your child’s medical history, family medical history and reports on your child’s development. He or she will take into account any event that may have caused your child’s behavior or symptoms. This process can be lengthy or complicated, but an accurate diagnosis is essential in finding the correct treatment.
The treatment options for your child’s condition will vary depending on the nature of the condition, as well as the services available in your area. Some treatment options are relatively traditional, while others are more experimental.
A typical approach to mental health issues in children is psychotherapy, including behavioral and talk therapies. This should help your child develop healthier thinking patterns and coping strategies. Psychotherapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) are sometimes combined with parental therapies as well. These will help you develop caring and coping skills to support your child.
Medication is another possible type of treatment. Psychotropic medications can have different effects on children than on adults, and your child will need to be closely monitored if he or she needs to take medication. Your child’s doctor or psychiatrist will weigh the risks against your child’s mental health requirements before prescribing any medication. Medication will frequently be combined with some kind of counselling or therapy.
Supporting Your Child
Feeling helplessness and frustration as a result of your child’s condition is common. However, it is important to remember your child will likely feel the same way. To keep supporting your child effectively, try the following approaches to communication and care:
- Try to open a conversation with your child about mental health. Stay calm and supportive throughout. Ask questions about the way he or she is feeling and actively listen to the answers. Make sure to find out whether he or she has considered harming himself or herself or others.
- Keep the topic open for discussion, and make sure your child feels comfortable coming to you with his or her thoughts and feelings.
- Communicate with your child throughout the process of diagnosis and treatment. Always speak in a manner appropriate to his or her level of development. A younger child will require fewer details about his or her condition, while a teenager may require more.
- Deal with any frustration or unhealthy communication and coping mechanisms that may have built up in your family as a result of your child’s mental condition.
- Communicate with your child’s school and caregivers. Make sure there are support strategies in place to monitor and care for your child in all environments.
- Consider some form of therapy or parenting skills training for yourself and your partner to help your child.