Mental 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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