Answers to Questions About Your Child's Mental Health

Children can have mental health disorders that interfere with the way they think, feel, and act. Although some behavior problems can be attributed to normal child development, some require professional help.

"Children's mental health is as important as their physical health," says Hazel Moran, senior director of Healthcare Reform at the nonprofit group Mental Health America (MHA). "Great care should be taken to help a child who has a mental health problem because mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders can affect the child's future."

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

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

Problems deserve attention when they are severe, persistent, and affect daily activities.

Seek help if your child:

  • Is often sad, worried or fearful

  • Has dramatic changes in appetite or sleep needs

  • Is spending most of his or her time alone instead of with friends or family

  • Has declining grades or interest in school

  • Is hyperactive, impulsive or has trouble concentrating

  • Is self-destructive or overly aggressive toward others

Whom should I go to for help?

First, have your child seen by a doctor. Your doctor may recommend that you take your child to a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or behavioral therapist.

How are mental disorders diagnosed in young children?

As with adults, disorders are diagnosed by observing signs and symptoms. A skilled professional will consider symptoms in the context of the child's age and reports from parents and other caretakers or teachers.

Which mental disorders are commonly seen in children and teens?

  • Anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders such as panic or generalized anxiety are the most common mental health problems occurring in children and adolescents. According to one large-scale study of 9- to 17-year-olds, 13 percent of young Americans each year suffer from an anxiety disorder.

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This condition affects 3 to 5 percent of school-aged children. Its symptoms include poor attention and concentration and high distractibility and impulsiveness.

  • Depression. Up to 3 percent of children and up to 8 percent of adolescents suffer from depression. It affects mood, energy, interests, sleep, appetite, and overall functioning. Symptoms are extreme and persistent and can interfere significantly with the ability to function at home or at school.

  • Bipolar disorder. This illness, which affects 1 percent of children, causes extreme shifts in mood, energy, and functioning. Disruptive periods alternate with periods of withdrawal and other depressive symptoms.

How are children with mental health problems treated?

Sometimes, psychotherapies, behavioral strategies, and family support may be all a child needs. In other cases, medications are needed to help the child cope. If medication is prescribed, the child should be monitored and evaluated regularly.

When untreated, mental health disorders can lead to school failure, drug abuse, violence, and even suicide.

"Most children who receive the right kind of help improve and go on to live full and healthy lives as adults," says Moran. "Seeking help early is key to a positive outcome."


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