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Children can develop the same mental health conditions as adults, but their symptoms may be different. Know what to watch for and how you can help.
Mental illness in children can be hard for parents to identify. As a result, many children who could benefit from treatment don’t get the help they need. Understand how to recognize warning signs of mental illness in children and how you can help your child.
Mental health is the overall wellness of how you think, regulate your feelings and behave. A mental illness, or mental health disorder, is defined as patterns or changes in thinking, feeling or behaving that cause distress or disrupt a person’s ability to function.
Mental health disorders in children are generally defined as delays or disruptions in developing age-appropriate thinking, behaviors, social skills or regulation of emotions. These problems are distressing to children and disrupt their ability to function well at home, in school or in other social situations.
It can be difficult to understand mental health disorders in children because normal childhood development is a process that involves change. Additionally, the symptoms of a disorder may differ depending on a child’s age, and children may not be able to explain how they feel or why they are behaving a certain way.
Other factors might also prevent parents from seeking care for a child who has a suspected mental illness. For example, parents might be concerned about the stigma associated with mental illness, the use of medications, and the cost or logistical challenges of treatment.
Mental health disorders in children — or developmental disorders that are addressed by mental health professionals — may include the following:
Warning signs that your child may have a mental health disorder include:
If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, consult your child’s health care provider. Describe the behaviors that concern you. Talk to your child’s teacher, close friends, relatives or other caregivers to see if they’ve noticed changes in your child’s behavior. Share this information with your child’s health care provider.
Mental health conditions in children are diagnosed and treated based on signs and symptoms and how the condition affects a child’s daily life. To make a diagnosis, your child’s health care provider might recommend that your child be evaluated by a specialist, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, clinical social worker, psychiatric nurse or other mental health care professional. The evaluation might include:
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a guide published by the American Psychiatric Association, provides criteria for making a diagnosis based on the nature, duration and impact of signs and symptoms. Another commonly used diagnostic guideline is the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) from the World Health Organization.
Diagnosing mental illness in children can take time because young children may have trouble understanding or expressing their feelings, and normal development varies. Your child’s health care provider may change or refine a diagnosis over time.
Common treatment options for children who have mental health conditions include:
You will play an important role in supporting your child’s treatment plan. To care for yourself and your child:
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