Your Child's Mental Health
The mental health of your child is as important as his/her physical health. Learn more about mental health problems in children and how to nurture your child's mental health.
Mental health is how people think, feel, and act as they face life's situations. It affects how people handle stress, relate to one another, and make decisions. Mental health influences the ways individuals look at themselves, their lives, and others in their lives. Like physical health, mental health is important at every stage of life.
All aspects of our lives are affected by our mental health. Caring for and protecting our children is an obligation and is critical to their daily lives and their independence.
Children and Adolescents Can Have Serious Mental Health Problems
Like adults, children and adolescents can have mental health disorders that interfere with the way they think, feel, and act. When untreated, mental health disorders can lead to school failure, family conflicts, drug abuse, violence, and even suicide. Untreated mental health disorders can be very costly to families, communities, and the health care system.
(Ed. Note: Many children and adolescents have periods of emotional stress that would benefit from short-term treatment, but those problems would not necessarily result in what is called a "diagnosable" mental health problem. Examples of these mental health problems may include grieving the recent loss of a loved one or improving family relationships. A child's mental health has no relationship to his or her intellectual capacity. Children with and without the above mental health problems have IQ's that range from low, ie. mental retardation, to high.)
Mental Health Disorders Are More Common in Young People than Many Realize
Studies show that at least one in five children and adolescents have a mental health disorder. ("Mental Health Problems" for children and adolescents refers to the range of all diagnosable emotional, behavioral, and mental disorders. They include depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and anxiety, conduct, and eating disorders.) At least one in 10, or about 6 million people, have a serious emotional disturbance. ("Serious Emotional Disturbances" for children and adolescents refers to the above disorders when they severely disrupt daily functioning in home, school, or community.) Tragically, an estimated two-thirds of all young people with mental health problems are not getting the help they need.
The Causes of Mental Health Problems in Children Are Complicated
Mental health disorders in children and adolescents are caused mostly by biology and environment. Examples of biological causes are genetics, chemical imbalances in the body, or damage to the central nervous system, such as a head injury. Many environmental factors also put young people at risk for developing mental health disorders. Examples include:
- Exposure to environmental toxins, such as high levels of lead;
- Exposure to violence, such as witnessing or being the victim of physical or sexual abuse, drive-by shootings, muggings, or other disasters;
- Stress related to chronic poverty, discrimination, or other serious hardships; and
- The loss of important people through death, divorce, or broken relationships.
It's easy for parents to recognize when a child has a high fever. A child's mental health problem may be more difficult to identify. Mental health problems can't always be seen. But the symptoms can be recognized.
Children and adolescents with mental health issues need to get help as soon as possible. A variety of signs may point to mental health disorders or serious emotional disturbances in children or adolescents. Pay attention if a child or adolescent you know has any of these warning signs:
A child or adolescent is troubled by feeling:
- Sad and hopeless for no reason, and these feelings do not go away.
- Very angry most of the time and crying a lot or overreacting to things.
- Worthless or guilty often.
- Anxious or worried often.
- Unable to get over a loss or death of someone important.
- Extremely fearful or having unexplained fears.
- Constantly concerned about physical problems or physical appearance.
- Frightened that his or her mind either is controlled or is out of control.
A child or adolescent experiences big changes, such as:
- Showing declining performance in school.
- Losing interest in things once enjoyed.
- Experiencing unexplained changes in sleeping or eating patterns.
- Avoiding friends or family and wanting to be alone all the time.
- Daydreaming too much and not completing tasks.
- Feeling life is too hard to handle.
- Hearing voices that cannot be explained.
- Experiencing suicidal thoughts.
A child or adolescent experiences:
- Poor concentration and is unable to think straight or make up his or her mind.
- An inability to sit still or focus attention.
- Worry about being harmed, hurting others, or doing something "bad".
- A need to wash, clean things, or perform certain routines hundreds of times a day, in order to avoid an unsubstantiated danger.
- Racing thoughts that are almost too fast to follow.
- Persistent nightmares.
A child or adolescent behaves in ways that cause problems, such as:
- Using alcohol or other drugs.
- Eating large amounts of food and then purging, or abusing laxatives, to avoid weight gain.
- Dieting and/or exercising obsessively.
- Violating the rights of others or constantly breaking the law without regard for other people.
- Setting fires.
- Doing things that can be life threatening.
- Killing animals.
Comprehensive Services through Systems of Care Can Help
Some children diagnosed with severe mental health disorders may be eligible for comprehensive and community-based services through systems of care. Systems of care help children with serious emotional disturbances and their families cope with the challenges of difficult mental, emotional, or behavioral problems. To learn more about systems of care, call the National Mental Health Information Center at 1-800-789-2647, and request fact sheets on systems of care and serious emotional disturbances, or visit the Center's web site at http://mentalhealth.samhsa.gov
Finding the Right Services Is Critical
To find the right services for their children, families can do the following:
- Get accurate information from hotlines, libraries, or other sources.
- Seek referrals from professionals.
- Ask questions about treatments and services.
- Talk to other families in their communities.
- Find family network organizations.
It is critical that people who are not satisfied with the mental health care they receive discuss their concerns with providers, ask for information, and seek help from other sources.
Don't Give Up
It's important that you keep looking until you find the right services for your child. Some children and families need counseling or family supports. Others may need medical care, residential care, day treatment, education services, legal assistance, rights protection, transportation, or case management.
Some families don't seek help because they are afraid of what other people may say or think. Other barriers also may get in the way, such as the cost of care, limited insurance benefits, or no health insurance. While these may be problems for your family, treatment is necessary. Some mental health providers and community mental health centers charge fees on a sliding-scale based on a family's ability to pay.
Seeking help may require a lot of patience and persistence on your part. Be assured that there are several national organizations and advocacy groups that can help you find services in your community.
Nurturing Your Child's Mental Health
As parents you are responsible for your children's physical safety and emotional well-being. There is no one right way to raise a child. Parenting styles vary, but all caregivers should agree on expectations for your child. The following suggestions are not meant to be complete. Many good books are available in libraries or at bookstores on developmental stages, constructive problem-solving, discipline styles, and other parenting skills.
Do your best to provide a safe home and community for your child, as well as nutritious meals, regular health check-ups, immunizations, and exercise. Be aware of stages in child development so you don't expect too much or too little from your child.
Encourage your child to express his or her feelings; respect those feelings. Let your child know that everyone experiences pain, fear, anger, and anxiety. Try to learn the source of these feelings. Help your child express anger positively, without resorting to violence.
Promote mutual respect and trust. Keep your voice level down--even when you don't agree. Keep communication channels open.
Listen to your child. Use words and examples your child can understand. Encourage questions. Provide comfort and assurance. Be honest. Focus on the positives. Express your willingness to talk about any subject.
Look at your own problem-solving and coping skills. Are you setting a good example? Seek help if you are overwhelmed by your child's feelings or behaviors or if you are unable to control your own frustration or anger.
Encourage your child's talents and accept limitations. Set goals based on the child's abilities and interests--not someone else's expectations. Celebrate accomplishments. Don't compare your child's abilities to those of other children; appreciate the uniqueness of your child. Spend time regularly with your child.
Foster your child's independence and self-worth. Help your child deal with life's ups and downs. Show confidence in your child's ability to handle problems and tackle new experiences.
Discipline constructively, fairly, and consistently. (Discipline is a form of teaching, not physical punishment.) All children and families are different; learn what is effective for your child. Show approval for positive behaviors. Help your child learn from his or her mistakes.
Love unconditionally. Teach the value of apologies, cooperation, patience, forgiveness, and consideration for others. Do not expect to be perfect; parenting is a difficult job.
Important Messages About Child and Adolescent Mental Health:
- Every child's mental health is important.
- Many children have mental health problems.
- These problems are real, painful, and can be severe.
- Mental health problems can be recognized and treated.
- Caring families and communities working together can help.
- Information is available; call 1-800-789-2647.
- SAMHSA's National Mental Health Information Center
Last Updated: 18 March 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD