Understanding Mental Health in Children

Two young boys with cupcakesMental health issues can start at a young age, so it’s important for new parents to know what signs and symptoms to look for in their child.

In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website, around 1 in 5 children in the United States currently have or at some point have had a “seriously debilitating mental disorder.” The NIMH also states on its website that “mental disorders are common among children,” which emphasizes the importance of detecting issues at an early age to possibly prevent a lifelong struggle.

Some mental disorders are thought to be even more common in children now than before, such as autism. A study released March 29, 2012, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “estimates that 1 in 88 children in the United States has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder,” according to the press release. Boys have a higher estimated prevalence rate than girls (1 in 54), and “more children are being diagnosed by age 3.”

Experts have advice on how to monitor and address any mental health issues that that may arise in your children.

Mark Myers, a licensed clinical social worker, said in an email that mental health issues in children generally differ depending on the age group. “For younger children, if a child is not hitting their developmental milestones, this could be indicative of a developmental disorder such as autism or pervasive developmental disorder,” Myers said. “Significant delays such as speech and motor skills or behaviors could also be areas of concern.”

Here are other behaviors he says to watch for:

  • Difficulties in transitions and frequent and intense meltdowns.
  • Peer interactions and how well your child engages with others; collateral play, sharing, and willingness to engage with others
  • Ability to take direction and stay on task, when a child reaches school age
  • In older children, isolating, dramatic changes in behavior or personality, peer interactions, or following rules, extreme changes in emotions, being less active, change in peers or peer involvement, or drop in grades

Children, at different ages, to some degree will experience some of these concerns. If the behaviors are consistent and or extreme, it would be helpful to discuss with a professional.

Dr. Barry Sears, an expert in anti-inflammatory nutrition, the creator of the Zone Diet, and author of books including Enter the Zone, said in an email that high-dose fish oil supplements can help children maintain good mental health.

“Omega-3 fatty acids boost energy by reducing cellular inflammation,” Sears said. “It’s cellular inflammation that causes disease because it disrupts hormonal signaling necessary for daily activities, both physical and mental. Omega-3 fatty acids offer extraordinary health benefits in treating chronic diseases, improving athletic performance, and enhancing emotional well-being. It does so by helping to reduce inflammation and increase blood flow throughout the brain and body.”

Daniel Bober, a psychiatrist who is board certified in child and adolescent psychiatry, an assistant clinical professor at Yale Child Study Center, and the medical director of pediatric psychiatry at Joe Dimaggio Children’s Hospital, said in an email that it is best to first see a pediatrician or primary care provider to address any concerns, because some seemingly unusual behaviors can be normal for a certain age group.

“The best way to help your child maintain good mental health is to support their self-esteem and development by providing a warm, nurturing, and supportive environment where there is open communication,” Bober said.

The NIMH provides the following guidelines for ways parents can promote good mental health in their children.

  • Early identification, diagnosis and treatment can help children reach their full potential.
  • Children with mental illness need guidance and understanding from their parents and teachers. Before a diagnosis has been made, frustration, blame, and anger may have built up within a family. Parents and children need help to undo these unhealthy interaction patterns.
  • Parents can benefit from parenting skills training, where they can learn how to handle difficult situations and behaviors. With training, parents can learn to find opportunities to share positive activities with their child, reflect back to the child what the child is good at, and praise the child’s strengths and abilities. Parents can also learn stress-management techniques.

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  • Marge


    April 24th, 2012 at 11:37 AM

    Think about all of the times you have seen children exhibiting amny of these very same symptoms and have chalked it up to bad parenting and bad behavior. I know that I sure have. But maybe I have not really seen the real situation going on in this child’s life. In many cases there could be far more going on that just a temper tantrum. This could be the sign of the onset of a serious mental disorder that is being handles all wrong. I don’t think that any of us would say that a time out or a spanking is going to help when a child is seriously having mental health issues, but most of us never even consider that this could be something more than a behavioral problem. Thanks so much for this article which really helped to open my eyes that something are not always what they seem, and that maybe we should put a little more thought into something before jumping to conclusions.

  • kemper


    April 24th, 2012 at 2:30 PM

    Just like any other illness that affects us, the earlier we understand what is going on and make a diagnosis then the better the child is going to have the chance to recover and get preventive treatment.

  • Amberley


    April 24th, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    It must be hard as a parent to realize that there is something about your precious child that is not like other children, that there is something there causing all of these issues that may not be found in other kids. Please don’t shy away if you think that there is something going on there. It is never a bad idea to talk with your child’s doctor about any of your concerns; he or she can give you a pretty good idea of whether your concerns are unfounded or if there is something there for you to be worried about.

  • Eliza


    April 25th, 2012 at 12:10 AM

    While not every parent can be an expert,it is not possible to have professional monitoring for your child at all times either.Some amount of awareness and a keen eye for development in the child is all that is required to identify and get treatment for any mental health condition that a child might have.

  • EK


    April 25th, 2012 at 4:27 AM

    training the parents on how to give their child the most support and get them the right treatment, that is so much more valuable than I think we have veer acknowledged. Sometimes these are parents who feel so overwhelmed and maybe even ashamed, because I know that they could be thinking that this is their fault. They need to be assured that this is not something that they caused, but it is something that they can dive into, get involved with, and make a positive difference for their child. They can’t give up though when the going gets too tough, because they are going to be the strongest voice and advocate for their own child and her needs.

  • Ben


    April 25th, 2012 at 12:41 PM

    One of the saddest things about all of this is when you see parents who are embarassed by their child’s behavior or mental health and they don’t do anything to improve it.
    Whether they are embarassed to ask for help or they are just indifferent it really irks me to know that the children are not being provided with the services that they need to be a success.

  • Logan


    April 26th, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    Why is it that when I was young we never heard of mental disorders in kids.

    And nowadays it seems to be rampant!

    Are we just more aware, or are we looking for an explanation for the bad attitudes and poor grades in school?

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