Adults aren’t the only people who face mental health challenges. Children – even the very young – can develop mental illness.
Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School found that half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders start by age 14 and three-fourths begin by 24 years of age. They concluded that about half of Americans will meet the criteria for a disorder sometime in their life, with first onset usually in childhood or adolescence.
Even though many children and teenagers experience mental health problems, they are less likely to receive treatment than adults.
Well, they are often expected to “grow out of” their emotional issues. Changes in behavior are commonly viewed as “a stage” or “a phase” the child or teen is going through.
While it is true that children and teenagers do go through stages of emotional development and learn to develop coping skills and strategies as they go, brushing certain behaviors or traits under the rug can sometimes lead to signs of serious mental illness being overlooked.
Children and teens can develop all of the same mental health conditions as adults, but sometimes they express them differently.
The most prevalent mental health disorders seen in children and teenagers are the following:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Behavioral disorders including oppositional defiant disorder (OOD) and conduct disorder (CO)
- Drug abuse
- Eating disorders
There are two warning signs that can occur at any age:
- Extremes or peculiarity of behavior for the age and gender of the child, such as being significantly more hyper, aggressive, or withdrawn
- Sudden, hard-to-explain negative changes in behavior, such as a steep drop in grades
Here are additional warning signs for different age groups.
Preschool/early elementary school age:
- Behavior problems at daycare or at school
- Hyperactivity or inability to focus
- Nightmares or trouble sleeping
- Extreme disobedience or aggression, or harming others or animals
- Excessive temper tantrums
- Persistent separation anxiety
Grade school age:
- Excessive fears or worries
- Extreme hyperactivity
- Sudden decline in academic performance
- Loss of interest in friends or social activities
- Sudden changes in weight, loss of appetite, or excessive worry about weight gain
- Sudden changes in sleep habits
- Obvious mood swings or prolonged sadness
- Substance abuse
- Seeing or hearing things that are not there
Early teen/teen years:
- Signs listed for younger age groups above can be present, but may be more pronounced
- Destructive behavior
- Threatening to run away or actually running away (can be precursor to self-harm)
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Comments, writings, or artwork that suggests a desire to harm oneself or others
If you believe your child or teenager might have a mental health disorder, the first step to take is to speak openly with a healthcare provider. Usually a mental health professional, especially one with a background treating children or teens, will be the best resource for your family.
They may be able to offer treatment like behavioral therapy or prescribed medications for your child. The internet also offers an abundance of resources for parents like reading material, online wellness forums, and family networks where parents can interact with other families who can provide advice and support.