Nurturing your child’s mental health takes as much attention as promoting their physical well-being. Learn more about what mental health in children looks like, how to support it, common childhood mental health issues, and what to do if your child is showing signs of needing extra support.
What is a Child’s Mental Health?
Supporting your child’s mental health is about more than just preventing and treating mental illness. Mental health encompasses successful achievement of developmental and emotional milestones, as well as developing proper social and coping skills, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mental health is not merely the absence of having a problem. It refers to how well a child navigates life and handles daily stressors.
Children who are mentally healthy have a generally positive outlook on life and function well at home, in school, and in their communities without major difficulty. Mentally healthy children will have challenging days but these days are exceptions, rather than their standard.
What Are Common Child Mental Health Issues?
Children, like adults, are susceptible to a wide range of mental disorders. Symptoms are experienced on a continuum. Once they start to interfere with how your child learns, acts, and responds to stressful situations, they can become serious issues worth addressing. Mental health disorders seen in children include:
Anxiety: An anxiety disorder, such as separation anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorder, or general anxiety, may be diagnosed if a child does not outgrow normal fears that young children experience, but rather their fears and worries intensify to a point that significantly interferes with their daily functioning.
Depression: Occasional feelings of sadness or loneliness are normal, but when those feelings, as well as hopelessness, helplessness and a lack of motivation, become pervasive and persistent, depression may be present.
Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD): ODD typically begins before the age of 8 and at least by the age of 12. It is marked by aggressive, angry, resentful, and oppositional or defiant behavior, most likely around people the child is most comfortable with and causes significant problems at home or at school.
Conduct Disorder (CD): Children who exhibit a pattern of aggressive and rule-breaking behavior may have CD. CD behaviors can include breaking serious rules at home, such as running away or destroying property, and at school, as well as breaking the law.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Individuals with OCD may exhibit obsessions (thoughts), compulsions (behaviors), or both. Children with OCD may experience unwanted thoughts and an urge to entact certain behaviors because of those thoughts. Such obsessions and compulsions happen frequently, can’t be ignored, and cause significant anxiety or distress.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): When children are unable to recover from highly stressful events, they may develop PTSD. Severe stress can be caused by abuse, injury, violence, death or near-death of a loved one, and more. When symptoms of PTSD, which include sleep problems, reliving the stressful event, intense fears and sadness, anger and irritability, and avoidance, among others, last for more than a month, PTSD may be diagnosed.
While it is difficult to witness a child struggling with their mental health, effective treatment options are available. Behavior therapy, psychotherapy, medications, and more are valuable treatment approaches that can be used individually or in combination with one another to greatly improve mental health. If you have concerns about your child’s mental health, the sooner you get them help the more likely they are to develop the skills they need to overcome their challenges and not be burdened by them later in life.
Signs Your Child Could Benefit from Extra Support
As children develop, they go through a variety of developmental stages that can leave you wondering if they have a mental health issue or not. Many behavioral and emotional symptoms are normal pieces of development and are not necessarily signs your child needs help. Periods of being sad, anxious, irritable, lacking focus, or having trouble sitting still, for example, can be entirely normal phases of your child’s development.
If you observe behavioral or emotional issues that persist and are interfering with your child’s daily functioning and success at school, they might benefit from support from a mental health professional.
Signs to look for in young children, as suggested by the National Institute of Mental Health, include:
- Intense irritability
- Frequent tantrums
- Frequent talk about fears and concerns
- Frequent somatic complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches
- A need to be constantly moving and an inability to sit still
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Frequent nightmares
- Lack of interest in playing with other children
- Difficulty making friends
- Academic problems
- A need to repeatedly check on items to ensure nothing bad happens
The following symptoms observed in older children and adolescents may warrant further attention:
- A loss of interest in things they once enjoyed
- Low energy
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Avoidance of social activities with family and friends
- Spending an increasing amount of time alone
- Excessive dieting or exercising due to a fear of gaining weight
- Signs of self-harm, including cutting or burning skin
- Drug and/or alcohol use
- Engaging in risky behaviors, either on their own or with friends
- Thoughts or plans of suicide
- Periods of highly elevated energy and reduced need for sleep
- Reports of hearing things others can’t
The above lists are not comprehensive of all symptoms of mental issues but rather they provide a basis for what to look out for. If you have observed any combination of the above symptoms in your child, seeking advice from a mental health professional could be the first step you take towards getting your child the help they need and deserve.
How to Support Your Child’s Mental Health
Support your child’s mental health by encouraging their adaptive strengths to grow and providing extra support in areas they may be struggling. In addition to addressing specific symptoms of concern, there are many preventative and strength-building steps parents can implement on a daily basis to support their children’s mental health.
The CDC recommends all children engage in the following in order to encourage mental and physical health:
- Get physical activity in everyday
- Eat a well-balanced and healthy diet based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean protein sources, nuts and seeds
- Get enough sleep (11-14 hours for toddlers aged 1-2; 10-13 hours for children aged 3-5; 9-12 hours for children aged 6-12; 8-10 hours for teens aged 13-18).
- Develop strong relationships with family members so that your child feels supported and understood
For a quick read on the power of the relationship between a child and a caring adult, check out Jim Sheils’ The Family Board Meeting. A few regularly dedicated hours alone between you and your child can do wonders for their behavior and sense of self in the world.
Ask For Help.
If you have concerns about your child’s mental health, start by talking with trusted friends, family members, and teachers to see if they share any of your observations and concerns about your child with you. Your child’s pediatrician is also a great source for finding proper mental health support. Mental health professionals are trained in the diagnosis and treatment of childhood mental health disorders. They can help you develop a treatment plan that capitalizes on your child’s strengths while addressing their weaknesses to help your child reach their full potential and get the most out of life.