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Your child’s mental health: when is it more than just growing up?

Learn the early signs of mental illness in children.


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May 18, 2017

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When we think of mental illness, we often times associate it with adults. But research shows that 50 percent of mental illnesses can be diagnosed by the mid-teens.

It can be easy to write off mood swings or sadness as normal parts of growing up. But sometimes, it can be more than that.

Starting the conversation about mental illness is hard enough. But when it involves a child, it is even harder.

Amy Nygaard, MD, is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at HealthPartners. We asked her some of the common questions parents have about the mental health of children.

What are some of the mental illnesses that a child might face?

Dr. Nygaard: The most common diagnoses I see in children are ADHD, depression, anxiety, autism spectrum disorders, adjustment disorders and disruptive behavior.

Can a child grow out of some mental illnesses?

Dr. Nygaard: Yes, depending on the illness. Up to one-third of children diagnosed with ADHD as a child will outgrow it as an adult. And as an adult, only about a third will require medication.

Are mental illnesses genetic?

Dr. Nygaard: Some can be. There is evidence that depression, anxiety and ADHD can have a genetic component.

Can certain events trigger mental health changes?

Dr. Nygaard: A traumatic event could increase or create behavioral changes. PTSD is a diagnosis which requires a specific traumatic trigger to make the diagnosis.

What should I be looking for in my child?

Dr. Nygaard: There are many signs that could indicate a mental health problem. They include:

  • Change in your child’s behavior, mood, personality or sleeping habits
  • Problems at school that lead to detention or suspension
  • Legal issues or risk of charges that involve the police
  • Feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
  • Risk taking behaviors such as drug use, sexualized behaviors, running away, staying out at night, or having changes in friends or online behaviors that may be risky
  • Overwhelming fears with a racing heart, physical discomfort or fast breathing
  • Severe mood swings that cause problems in your child’s relationships
  • Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still, which can lead to school failure
  • Not eating, or having a change in weight or eating habits

What should I do if I think my child may have a mental illness?

Dr. Nygaard: Support your child. Let them know they are loved and supported. Remind them to talk to you or another trusted adult that they can confide in. Ensure they get enough sleep. Try to minimize the amount of time they spend with technology and social media. And make sure they are eating well and getting enough exercise.

If there are still concerns, talk with your child’s pediatrician and work with their school to set up a plan. Start with your child’s teacher to see if there are concerns. Then, if needed, talk to a school behavioral specialist.

NAMI is also a great resource to connect with other families who might be going through something similar.

With the right support, you can determine what your child needs. Don’t let fear or shame prevent your child from getting help. HealthPartners’ ongoing Make It OK campaign, offers encouragement and resources to help guide you. Together, we can end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Additional resources and emergency contacts:

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