All kids experience some challenges as they go through childhood, and most of the time these “rough patches” come and go without too much cause for worry. Sometimes though, a troubling phase lingers, bringing to light a mental health issue that could be resolved with the help of someone well-versed in the area of childhood development.
For example, while it is normal and even expected for children to experience sadness at times, a child who is sad most of the time and having difficulty getting through their normal activities might be experiencing depression. Similarly, although many children have nightmares on occasion, troubling dreams that increase in intensity and frequency could indicate feelings of extreme anxiety.
David Katkin, LPCC and CEO of Katkin and Associates in Cincinnati, says that the “frequency and severity” of a problem can help parents discern whether an issue merits intervention. Parents should become concerned “if the sad moments seem to be outweighing the good moments, or if the severity of the emotions are at a level that their lives are disrupted,” he says. Content is another important element. Phrases like “I wish I was dead” should raise concern. Katkin says that while it’s normal for children to have mood swings, when the moods get in the way of their daily functioning, that’s when it’s important to seek help.
Local psychologist Christopher Kaeppner stresses that parents should trust their gut instincts. “If they feel like something is wrong and this feeling continues for a while, an evaluation or additional information gathering should proceed,” he says. “If there’s been a significant change in the child’s mood, behavior or social integration, those are all red flags for the need for evaluation and possible intervention.”
Mental health issues can look different from child to child, and there are a wide variety of issues that can affect kids. A parent’s knowledge and intuition regarding their child goes a long way in helping to identify a problem. It is important to note that warning signs change as children age. Younger children tend to exhibit mental health issues through their behavior, while older adolescents may exhibit symptoms through their emotions.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) outlines several signs to watch for in younger children that could indicate a potential problem:
- Changes in school performance
- Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance fighting to avoid bed or school
- Hyperactive behavior
- Frequent nightmares
- Frequent disobedience or aggression
- Frequent temper tantrums
Parents of adolescents should take note of these troubling behaviors:
- Feeling excessively sad or low
- Excessive worrying or fear
- Substance abuse
- Social avoidance
- Changes in eating habits
- Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
- Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, NAMI recommends erring on the side of caution. Kaeppner provides a simple rule of thumb: “If you frequently have trouble getting to sleep because you’re worrying about your child, there’s a strong likelihood that someone needs help.”
Even mild symptoms can be relieved, and more severe issues respond best when treatment is sought in earlier stages. Your first stop might be your child’s school. Discuss your concerns with your child’s teachers and find out what services your school provides. Often, there is a counselor on staff who can help determine what steps to take regarding your child’s unique issues. Your pediatrician or family doctor can also recommend a local therapist or treatment center for help. The online Psychology Today database (www.PsychologyToday.com) lists provider information sorted by zip code, cost, specialty and other factors.
Most importantly, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. As a parent you wouldn’t think twice about seeking a professional opinion for a physical problem your child might have. Mental health should be viewed in the same way. Professional therapists, social workers, counselors and psychologists are trained to identify problematic behaviors in kids, and work with parents as partners in helping their child.