Can Parents Tell if Their Child is Mentally Ill?

Study finds that many parents know when their child has a mental illness.

Around half of all children whose parents have concerns about their mental health have a diagnosable mental health problem, according to research from the Institute of Psychiatry in London. If the child's teachers have similar concerns then the chances that the child is suffering a mental illness are even greater.

Dr. Tamsin Ford and colleagues from the Institute of Psychiatry investigated how accurately parents are able to identify that their child has a mental health problem such as an emotional disorder, ADHD or other conduct disorder. The team surveyed 10,438 children aged between 5 and 15 living in Great Britain. Information from the children and their parents and teachers was gathered using interviews and questionnaires and assessed to determine whether the child had a diagnosable mental health problem.

Mental health problems 'unlikely to be missed' by parents

The study also found that it is uncommon for parents not to notice a mental health problem in their child. In only 5% of cases where parents expressed no concerns about their son or daughter's mental health was a diagnosable condition actually present. (more:signs of mental health problems in children)

Parents' ability to identify mental illness in their children

Condition Percentage of children with concerned parents who were found to have a diagnosable disorder Percentage of children with concerned parents and teachers who were found to have a diagnosable disorder
Conduct disorder 46% n/a
Emotional disorder (e.g. anxiety) 28% n/a
Hyperactivity 23% 62%

Parents were best able to identify the presence of conduct disorder in their children. 46% of parents reporting behavioral problems had correctly identified a diagnosable disorder. 28% correctly identified the presence of an emotional disorder and 23% of parents had correctly identified the presence of ADHD. Sometimes parents were worried that their child had behavior problems, and in fact these were a manifestation of a different type of psychiatric disorder.


 


ADHD and teachers' predictive power

While 23% of children whose parents were worried about their child's concentration and activity level did actually have ADHD, 62% of children whose parent and teacher expressed concern were diagnosed as having ADHD. Given the extra 'predictive power' of the concerns of teachers, Dr. Ford and her colleagues suggest that health practitioners should inquire about the level of concern at a child's school when a parent expresses worries about their child's attention or activity levels.

Lack of services for children and adolescents

While half of the children whose parents had concerns about their mental health had a diagnosable condition, Dr. Ford and her team believe that many of the children about whom concern was expressed may still have some form of disorder but to a lesser extent than allowed a diagnosis to be made. It is difficult for parents in this position to get treatment for their children as priority is given to more severe, diagnosable forms.

Self-help packages

Dr Ford recommends that in these 'non-diagnosable' cases, children should be encouraged to use self-help packages available in the form of books and web sites. The Youth In Mind (www.youthinmind.info) web site, run by one of the project researchers, contains links to helpful web sites and offers an online questionnaire that helps to identify psychological disorders in children.

Sources:

  • Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London
  • South London and Maudsley NHS Trust

next: Teacher's View of Your Child's Mental Health

Last Updated: 18 March 2016

Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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