What You Should Know about Your Child and Mental Health Issues

Your normally calm and complacent child suddenly begins experiencing extreme mood swings and starts getting in trouble at school. This causes you to wonder: Is this a typical part of her childhood development or could it be a sign of something more?

The Scope of Mental Illness Affecting Children

The term mental illness encompasses a wide array of issues ranging from emotional, behavioral, and eating disorders to attention deficit, hyperactivity, and panic/anxiety challenges. Such disorders can be caused by a variety of reasons including biological imbalances that need to be addressed, emotional needs that are unmet, and exposure to harmful environmental elements.

These problems also cast a wide net. In fact, statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reveals that at any given time, mental illnesses affect as many as one in five children in some form and one in 10 children suffer from mental health problems severe enough to interfere with their ability to function well at home.

Who is at Risk?

If you're worried about your own child and wonder at what age signs of mental illness issues could present themselves, keep in mind that there's no hard and fast rule.  That being said, a study conducted by researchers from Harvard that was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2005 reported that the median age of onset for both anxiety and impulse control disorders was 11. In addition, half of all lifetime cases of mental illnesses begin by 14. But the experts point out that while older children may be more susceptible to these problems, the fact is that anyone can be at risk, even young children.

Warning Signs

It's also important to recognize that the signs of mental illness can vary, depending on your child's age. Here are some general signs provided by Mental Health America (formerly the National Mental Health Association) that can indicate a problem exists:

In younger, school-age children:

  • Decline or change in performance at school
  • Worry or anxiety interfering with daily activities
  • Hyper behavior
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Temper tantrums, disobedience, or aggressive behavior on a regular basis

In older children and pre-teens:

  • Experimentation with alcohol and drugs
  • Problems with daily living
  • Differences in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Extreme focus on controlling weight
  • Trouble at school or with police

Seek Support

When your child is experiencing any of these symptoms and they seem severe or persistent, or if teachers, friends, or family members mention feeling concerned, you should always talk to your pediatrician and ask him to refer you to an appropriate specialist. Keep in mind that if your child needs help and doesn't receive it, she can be at risk of experiencing a variety of serious consequences such as failing in school, turning to alcohol and drugs, engaging in violent behavior, and even committing suicide.

The good news, though, is that many forms of mental illnesses can be controlled or even resolved with guidance from a qualified mental health counselor or other specialist.

In the meantime, if you're feeling the strain of coping with a child with a mental health problem, you can also ask your child's doctor or counselor to help you find a family support group where you can connect with others facing similar challenges.


Archives of General Psychiatry


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration


Mental Health America