How to know if your child has a mental disorder

According to a 2019 report in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, approximately one in six young Americans between the ages of 6 and 17 has a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder such as anxiety, depression, or brain deficit disorder. attention/hyperactivity.

Less than 20% of these young people receive the care they need, which means that many of them are likely to enter adulthood with undiagnosed mental illness.

Dr. Steven Jewell, director of pediatric psychiatry and psychology at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio, says these mental disorders need to be diagnosed early so they don’t become a lifelong disability or end in suicide attempts.

Despite the prevalence of these disorders, it can be difficult for parents to distinguish the symptoms from what can be the typical anxiety and volatile moods that teenagers exhibit growing up.

“Often parents are unaware and have not been [educated] about how mental health issues manifest in young people,” said Dr. Rebecca Berry, child psychologist and clinical associate professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at New York University. Langone Health.

“It’s important for parents to notice if the behaviors are excessive, cause distress, are consistent and relentless, and lead to problems in key areas of life.”

Signs your child is struggling

According to the CDC, the most common mental illnesses in young people are anxiety, mood, attention, and behavior disorders. There are several signs that a youngster might be dealing with one, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an American mental health organization.
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  • Drastic changes in behavior or personality that seem out of control, such as fighting or arguing, may indicate a deeper problem. Unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, frequent vomiting, or use of laxatives may indicate a restrictive eating disorder.
  • Going from knowing a child has a strong group of friends to realizing they’ve become isolated and withdrawn and can’t name any friends can be a sign of depression or anxiety, said Jewell.
  • Difficulty concentrating can be a symptom of a general anxiety disorder, which can present as difficulty sitting still and can lead to poor academic performance.
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“If you have a child who is functioning at a particular academic level, and then all of a sudden starts to drop off and isn’t functioning as well as before, those are all warning signs that something is going on. needs,” Jewell said.

There are other physical signs of mental disorders: some children with mental disorders may develop headaches and stomachaches instead of sadness or anxiety, or self-harm, such as cutting or burning themselves.

How to talk to your kids about mental health

Talking about stress can be difficult and unfamiliar for parents and children, but it’s an important first step, Berry said.

“Having a discussion early can bring some difficult situations to light and help a family work together to better understand and address the stressors children face,” she said.

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This communication involves dismantling the shame usually attached to mental health issues, sending the message that it is as okay to discuss them as physical symptoms such as nausea or headaches.

Reacting negatively — verbally or with facial expressions that convey disbelief or annoyance — to what children say can be unpleasant or even hurtful to them, and they might avoid opening up to parents about it. future, said Berry.

“Instead, actively listen to their concerns. Be understanding [with phrases such as ‘I get this is hard’] and validating their experience of the situation and feelings,” she said.

A broad question such as “What’s wrong?” may ask for one-word answers that provide little information. Questions like how they get along with their friends over lunch can cause them to open up about more specific areas of their lives, Berry suggested.

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Eliminating the fear and stigma often associated with mental disorders is also integral to creating a welcoming environment for children.

Jewell, who often sees families with children struggling with mental health issues, said sometimes children’s concerns about these issues are dismissed “mainly out of fear and anxiety on the part of the parents”, or thinking that children do not mean what they say or that their concerns are not as serious as they appear.

“Physical illness is pervasive and parents accept [that your kid gets sick] like just a part of raising a child. But when it comes to mental illness, stigma often gets in the way of people recognizing it,” Jewell said.

“If you asked a parent of a newborn, ‘How likely do you think your child is to become physically ill by their 18th birthday’, they would laugh at you and say ‘100%, of course’. ‘ The truth is, the same is true for mental illness the same way you think of physical illness.”

Proceed to next steps

Sometimes a parent may be afraid of a potential diagnosis because of the stigma associated with mental disorders – parents may see signs of mental illness in their child but are unwilling to believe it or act on it for fear that their child will be labeled by or ostracized by other people in some way, Jewell said.

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But if parents think their child is struggling with a mental health issue, getting them evaluated by a pediatrician is the first step to take. In addition to a diagnosis, pediatricians can provide specific feedback on how a child is functioning in school, social and family life, and refer them to a child psychiatrist if needed.

What children are able to process varies with their age and maturity, so if they feel they’re struggling with something but don’t know why, it’s important to be patient with them and untangle causal factors over time, Jewell said. Pediatricians are again helpful in this situation, as they can determine what is appropriate for a child at different stages of development.

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Not all families have access to sufficient health services in their area. In 2018, the US Department of Health and Human Services reported that approximately 111 million people lived in areas of “mental health professional shortage”.

Some families also lack the funds to support a child with mental illness, but the ability to manage the problem without professional intervention depends on the child’s status across the broad spectrum of mental disorders, Jewell said.

Suicidal mindsets require professional intervention, Jewell said. If “you have an anxious and depressed child who is beginning to show signs of functional impairment…at this stage, additional support from family may be enough to prevent or even reverse the progression of the disease. “.

“Sometimes it’s just about acknowledging that your child is struggling, reaching out and listening to what they have to say.” It is certainly a first step.

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