How Do I Know If My Child Has a Mental Illness?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • This week is Children's Mental Health Awareness Week (May 2nd through May 8th, 2010). In an effort to spread awareness, I have chosen to write on a topic a little more broad than just anxiety. This week's post will center around the question, How Do I Know if my Child has a Mental Illness? (You may want to use the icons above and share this on Twitter or Facebook to help spread awareness.)

    Your child is acting different, maybe seems a bit sad or is overly emotional, with crying or outbursts over even the littlest things. Your child is having trouble making friends or maybe their friends are shying away, avoiding spending time with your child. How do you know what is normal behaviors and what may signal a mental illness or, if not a mental illness, a reason for concern?

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    Before I get into what the experts say, let me remind each of you that, as a parent, you know your child, you know their moods, their strengths, their weaknesses. Trust your instincts. If you are concerned there may be something wrong, gather more information, talk with other adults in your child's life and, if your efforts don't seem to help the situation, talk with your pediatrician or family doctor. Until pretty recently, experts didn't all agree on childhood mental illness. Many people believed children couldn't be depressed or have an anxiety disorder or have bipolar disorder. Many people believed you needed to be at least a teenager to be diagnosed with these. But today we understand more about mental illness, we understand that symptoms can develop early in childhood. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health "half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14." [1]

    Warning Signs

    Warning signs are those that are different than your child's normal behavior. Sometimes, these behaviors can follow a traumatic event or family changes, such as divorce, a new baby, a death in the family, or moving to a new home or new city. Even when you know the cause of the stress, your child may benefit from receiving extra help in resolving their feelings and dealing with stress. Some specific behaviors to look for are:

    • Seems overly anxious, sad, scared or talks about feelings of hopelessness.
    • Has frequent mood changes, sometimes being happy and other times feeling extremely sad.
    • Difficulty falling or staying asleep or having nightmares.
    • Has frequent stomach aches/headaches with no apparent cause.
    • Misses school frequently or makes attempts to avoid going to school.
    • Poor school performance (without cause).
    • Difficulty making friends or spends time alone, even at recess.
    • Shows aggressive behavior, hitting, pushing or excessively yelling at others, or is consistently angry.
    • Fidgety, easily distracted, trouble paying attention.
    • Does not want to participate in family activities or be with friends.
    • Has emotional or tearful outbursts often.
    • Develops a fear of being away from home or from parents.
    • Loses appetite, doesn't want to eat foods that he or she once liked or refuses to eat.
    • Participates in behaviors that hurt other children or animals or destruction of property.
    • Talks about death or wanting to die.

    According to Children's Mental Health Matters, if you are concerned about some of the behaviors your child is showing, you should ask yourself the following questions:

    • Is my child's behavior normal for his or her age?
    • Is the behavior severe enough to get in the way of daily activities?
    • Does the problem occur frequently?
    • Does the behavior last for long periods of time? [2]

    What Parents Can Do

    Parents can gather information from a number of sources. If your child is in school or daycare, talk with the teacher to find out more about his or her behavior in that setting. What types of concerns are teachers seeing? How does your child interact with other children?

    Parents should also make an appointment with their pediatrician or family doctor to discuss their concerns. Write down the types of behaviors you are seeing and the circumstances that may be causing these behaviors. For example, if your child recently experienced the death of a close family member, let the doctor know of this, but also that your child does not seem to be able to cope with the death, especially if a period of more than one month has passed since the event.

    The doctor should complete a physical examination and possibly order laboratory tests to make sure there is no physical condition which may be causing the behaviors or symptoms.

    Treatments for Children

    Some problems can be resolved through extra emotional support, given by parents, teachers or other people in the child's life. But sometimes additional help is needed.

    Some children benefit from different types of psychological therapies, such as talk therapy or behavioral therapy. These types of therapies work to find the cause of the problem and in finding strategies to change behaviors and cope with symptoms. Many therapists will work with the parents as well as the child to develop a supportive environment as well as teaching parents coping strategies.

    Cognitive behavioral therapy works to change negative and unhealthy behaviors and works well with depression, and anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety.

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    Some children require medication, or would benefit from medication to help in dealing with symptoms of different mental illnesses. For example, there are a number of medication shown to help children with ADHD pay better attention and be more focused.


    For some, a combination of medication and therapy works best, along with family therapy. Children should be taught new skills to manage symptoms as well as ways to cope with stress and anxiety.

    For more information:

    Identifying Childhood Anxiety


    Parenting Style and Childhood Anxiety


    How Children Develop Fears and Anxiety Disorders


    Signs of Anxiety in Children


    [2] "About Your Child's Mental Health", Date Unknown, Author Unknown, Children's Mental Health Matters

    [1] "Treatment of Children with Mental Illness", Revised 2009, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health


Published On: May 04, 2010