As adults, it’s easy to think that our children don’t have a care in the world. After all, why would they? They don’t have the stress of a job, monthly bills or the seemingly endless amount of responsibilities that come with being an adult.

But children definitely face their own stresses. Pressure from school, friends, schoolmates and the world at large – not to mention the changing hormones of a growing body – all add up. Plus, there are the fears and questions that we all face, especially those that come with scary situations like social unrest or a global pandemic. And worse yet, children face it all without the experience, context and wisdom that adults gain from age.

Normal childhood stresses or mental illness?

Children are surprisingly resilient. With guidance, care and love, younger kids, tweens and teens alike can overcome these obstacles with an amazing amount of flexibility. We’ve especially seen this with the multiple pivots our children have had to take during the COVID-19 pandemic, including remote learning, social distancing and having to live in the same space where their parents are also working.

However, there are plenty of cases where the bad times keep going. Feelings of depression, anxiety and helplessness can linger far beyond the situations that cause them. As a parent, how do you know when your child’s sadness and fears are signaling something more than just the ins and outs of growing up?

In this post, we’ll share some of the most common childhood mental illnesses, the warning signs to watch for and the resources you can use to help both you and your child. And through it all, remember that you and your child aren’t alone, that help is near and hope is ahead.

Most common childhood mental illnesses

What mental health disorders are usually seen in children? According to Amy Nygaard, MD, a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at HealthPartners, she and her colleagues see the following conditions on a regular basis:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Pediatric bipolar disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Separation anxiety disorder (SAD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Autism spectrum disorders

Thankfully, you can find support for all of these childhood mental health conditions. A wide range of treatment options are available.

Mental health warning signs: What to watch for in children

There are situations and behavioral issues that can signal that something serious might be happening with your child’s mental health. Here are a few common warning signs:

  • Feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
  • Noticeable changes in your child’s behavior, mood, personality or sleeping habits
  • Overwhelming fears that come with a racing heart, physical discomfort or fast breathing
  • Constant worry or fearfulness that something bad may happen to themselves or loved ones
  • Lack of desire to go outside or take part in activities that they would otherwise enjoy
  • Behaviors like checking light switches, repeating actions such as closing doors, or constantly washing hands
  • Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still
  • Severe mood swings that are affecting your child’s relationships with family, friends and teachers
  • Not eating, or having a change in weight or eating habits
  • A sudden decline in performance at school or behavioral issues that are leading to detention or suspension
  • Risk-taking behaviors such as drug use, sexualized behaviors, running away, staying out at night, or changes in friends or online behaviors that may be risky
  • Recent encounters with police or charges for illegal behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts, threats of suicide or self-harm

If you notice any of these warning signs in your child, seek help right away.

What contributes to childhood mental illness?

It’s not at all unusual for children to develop mental illness early in their lives. In fact, research shows that 50% of mental illnesses can be diagnosed by the mid-teenage years.

There are many reasons why mental illnesses appear in childhood, with family history playing a big role. In fact, there is evidence that depression, anxiety and ADHD can be genetic. Major life events, from the personal to the global, can also bring a previously hidden mental illness to light. Your child’s environment, lifestyle, stress levels and brain chemistry can also contribute. The thing to remember is that there usually isn’t one direct cause of mental illness. Instead, it can be several factors linking together.

No one thing or person is to “blame” for mental illness. Instead, the main focus should be to recognize it, understand it and address it.

Depression, anxiety and other mental health problems during COVID-19

Major events and disasters can become triggers for mental illness in adults as well as in children. So it’s no surprise that the profound upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic – along with its effect on how kids learn and socialize – has resulted in increased cases of depression and anxiety in children. However, while the pandemic is unique in how it has touched our lives, its impact on the mental health of children is very similar to that of other large and destructive events.

This means that the symptoms of mental illness caused or made worse by the coronavirus pandemic – increased feelings of worry, panic, sadness and isolation – are very treatable with various therapies. And, with increased access to telehealth and video office visits, your child may be able to receive the help they need directly from home.

It’s very possible that even with a return to “normalcy” – being able to work, learn and play as we did before the pandemic – many symptoms of mental illness will remain. That’s why it’s especially important to address and treat those symptoms as soon as possible rather than wait for our routines to return. Again, the sooner the treatment, the sooner that recovery can begin.

Can kids outgrow mental illness?

Fortunately, according to Dr. Nygaard, children can outgrow some mental illnesses. For example, up to one-third of children diagnosed with ADHD will outgrow it as an adult. And as adults, only about a third diagnosed in childhood will require medication.

Nonetheless, the hope of future recovery shouldn’t prevent parents from getting their child treatment now.

How to support your child

Getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step toward supporting children with mental illnesses. When mental illness is identified, the right care can be started, giving children the tools to not only cope, but thrive. The key is to start the conversation by enlisting the help of a trusted mental health professional.

When it comes to finding care, start with your child’s pediatrician. They can connect you to a professional that can help evaluate, diagnose and treat your child’s condition. If possible, include your child’s teacher or teachers to update them on your child’s progress, coordinate care and establish a line of communication if there are any concerns. It’s also a good idea to talk with the behavioral specialist at your child’s school to discover additional resources.

As you look for help, there are actions you can also take at home to maximize the impact of good care. Make sure your child gets enough sleep and try to minimize the amount of time they spend with technology and on social media. Encourage healthy eating and exercise as well as time outdoors in the fresh air. Foster friendships and social interactions so your child doesn’t become even more withdrawn.

Additionally, Dr. Nygaard stresses the importance of letting your child know they are loved and supported. Remind them to talk to you or another trusted adult who they can confide in.

And remember that you’re not alone. HealthPartners’ Make It OK program provides guidance on how to talk about mental illness in a way that de-stigmatizes it. And we’ve started the Park Nicollet Foundation Children’s Mental Health and Well-Being Campaign to deepen the mental health support children have in the community. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers various mental health support groups to connect with other families who might be going through something similar. Plus, HealthPartners has numerous mental health services to support you and your child.

Times can be tough no matter how old you are. No one needs to suffer with depression, anxiety or mental illness. With a bit of knowledge, some help from those who care and plenty of love, your child’s mental illness can be recognized and treated, with hope for the future.

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