Children and mental health disorders

Children may have mental health disorders that interfere with the way they think, feel and act. Some behavior problems are part of normal child development, but some need professional help.

Children's mental health is as important as their physical health. A child who has a mental health problem needs to get help. Mental, emotional or behavioral disorders can affect their future.

The following answers to questions parents often ask can help you protect your child's mental health.

How do I know if my child's problems are serious?

Problems deserve attention when they are severe, lasting or affect daily activities.

Get help if your child:

  • Is often sad, worried or fearful
  • Has major changes in appetite or sleep needs
  • Is spending most of their time alone instead of with friends or family
  • Has lower grades or less interest in school
  • Is hyperactive, impulsive or has trouble focusing
  • Is self-destructive or overly aggressive toward others
  • Hurts, tortures or kills animals

Where should I go for help?

First, have your child see their primary care provider. The provider will first rule out any health conditions that could be causing the symptoms.

If no conditions are found, the provider may advise you to take your child to a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker or behavioral therapist. If your child goes to school, the school's staff (counselors, school psychologists and teachers) may become important members of their treatment team.

How are mental disorders diagnosed in young children?

A mental health provider will make the diagnosis. They will take a detailed family history, write down your child's developmental history and watch current symptoms.

Standardized testing may also be done. A skilled mental health provider will analyze all of the information. If certain diagnostic criteria are met, they will make a diagnosis. These are based on the child's age and reports from parents and other caregivers or teachers.

Which mental disorders are often seen in children and teens?

Anxiety disorders. These are the most common mental health problems in children and teens. They include panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). ADHD symptoms include poor attention and focus. Children with ADHD are easily distracted and act on impulse.

Depression. This affects mood, energy, interests, sleep, appetite and overall functioning. Symptoms of depression in children are extreme and are seen most days of the week. They can greatly interfere with the ability to function at home or at school.

Bipolar disorder. This mood disorder causes extreme shifts in mood, energy and functioning.

How are children with mental health problems treated?

Sometimes psychotherapies, behavioral strategies, classroom strategies and family support may be all a child needs. In other cases, medicines and family therapy are needed to help them cope.

If medicine is prescribed, your child should be watched and assessed regularly. If family therapy is recommended, it's important to keep all appointments for the length of therapy suggested.

If your child's mental health problems directly interfere with school performance, special laws will allow reasonable school accommodations for their needs. These protective laws fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Civil Rights Act. Talk with your child's teacher and principal to see if these legal protections apply to them.

Pediatric Psychiatry at University Health

Most children who receive the right kind of help get better. They go on to live full and healthy lives as adults. Getting help early is key to a positive result. Learn more about pediatric psychiatry care at University Health.

This article is provided by the StayWell Company, LLC. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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