Recognizing Signs of Mental Illness...

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Recognizing Signs of Mental Illness in Kids

August 24, 2021

What to do when you think your child needs help

Identifying mental health concerns in kids can be challenging because signs that kids are struggling look very different from adults, even when they are living with the same condition.

According to Mayo Clinic, mental illness in adults is changes or patterns in thinking, feeling or behaving that cause distress. Mental illness in kids may differ from adults in that illness is defined as a delay or disruption in the development of age-appropriate behavior, social skills, emotional regulation, or thinking. These delays can disrupt the child’s ability to function well at home, school, or in social settings.

What’s “normal” and what’s a problem?

It can also be hard to know when difficult behavior is normal child or teen defiance and when it is something that requires professional attention. Normal and problematic behavior are differentiated by how long the behavior lasts, whether it is impacting the child’s functioning, and if it is impacting other people.

What are the most common mental illnesses in children?

The most common mental or developmental disorders in children may include:

Recognizing signs of mental health distress in kids

  • Persistent sadness (2+ weeks)
  • Avoiding social gatherings
  • Hurting or talking about hurting oneself
  • Talking about death or suicide
  • Extreme irritability or fear
  • Struggling to fit in or get along with peers
  • Fighting or wanting to hurt others
  • Temper outbursts or out-of-control behavior
  • A drastic change in mood, behavior, or personality
  • Change in eating habits
  • Significant, sudden weight loss or gain
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headaches or stomach aches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in school performance
  • Avoiding or skipping school
  • A regression in behavior or development (example: was previously toilet trained and now having accidents)

What can I do to help my child?

If you notice any of the above signs in your child, try talking to them about it. Find or create a calm environment when neither of you are in a reactive mood and express that you have noticed a change in them. Ask them about their feelings and really listen. If you have a really young child, it may be helpful to offer a tool like a book designed to help them identify the feelings.

It might also be helpful to be engaged in play while you talk. Often, children use play as their language. While they might not have the words to say what they are feeling, themes may emerge when they are acting things out.

It’s ok if you don’t get a good answer or they don’t know how to respond. Most kids do not have the skills to express their feelings or acknowledge what is bothering them. That’s where professional help can come in.

If you are concerned about your child’s behavior and wonder if they may be dealing with a mental health struggle, it’s important to talk to a doctor. It may be helpful to speak to other trusted adults who interact with your child to gather more perspective on the child’s changed behavior. This helps to provide the doctor and any other professionals a more complete picture of what has been happening.

Your child’s doctor may recommend an evaluation by a psychiatrist, who can gather medical information, family history, personal history, review of symptoms, timeline of progress, observations, assessments, and more in order to make a diagnosis. Diagnoses in children can take a long time due to the fact that kids are not skilled at expressing or identifying their emotions. During this time, scheduling time for your child to talk to a child counselor can really help.

A child counselor provides a safe space for your child and can teach them how to identify and cope with their feelings. Child therapists are skilled at cultivating a safe space and providing activities designed to help open them up to difficult topics and conversations. If you wish, the therapist can work with your child’s psychiatrist as well, to help provide further information and insight about treatment options.

Providing a space for talk therapy during a time when your child is displaying any of the above signs of struggle is a great way you can support them when it may feel that your attempts to connect are not working. We know how hard it can be on caretakers when things are off with their kids.

At Life Insight, we believe in taking care of the whole family – in other words, families find healing fastest when they are seen as one emotional unit. If one member is struggling, chances are high that multiple members of the family are in need of support. We take pride in our ability to care for the entire family and often work with multiple members of the same family, pairing each person with the therapist that will meet their needs.

How can I help my child cope with their mental illness?

Let’s say your child has an official diagnosis from a doctor or psychiatrist and a treatment plan in place, what now? Well, you as the caretaker play a huge role in your child’s progress. After all, you are their primary support system.

  • Learn about their illness – dive into credible sources and learn everything you can.
  • Seriously consider offering or encouraging talk therapy sessions to all members of your family. Siblings and other caretakers are all part of your child’s support system and may be impacted by the diagnosis as well.
  • Ask your child’s doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist for help if you aren’t sure how to respond to your child’s difficult or confusing behavior during this time.
  • Enroll in parent training programs and support groups specific to your child’s diagnosis.
  • Develop and practice your stress management techniques and strategies to help you respond calmly.
  • Seek out ways to have fun and relaxed experiences with your child in environments that are not triggering to them.
  • Seek out additional support for your child at school.

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