Identifying Mental disorders in Children

It’s typically up to the adults in a child’s life to identify whether the child has a mental health concern. Unfortunately, many adults don’t know the signs and symptoms of mental illness in children.

Even if you know the red flags, it can be difficult to distinguish signs of a problem from normal childhood behavior. You might reason that every child displays some of these signs at some point. And children often lack the vocabulary or developmental ability to explain their concerns.

What mental disorders are found in Children

Children can develop all of the same mental health conditions as adults, but sometimes express them differently. For example, depressed children will often show more irritability than depressed adults, who more typically show sadness.

Children can experience a range of mental health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety disorders. Children who have anxiety disorders — such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia and generalized anxiety disorder — experience anxiety as a persistent problem that interferes with their daily activities.

    Some worry is a normal part of every child’s experience, often changing from one developmental stage to the next. However, when worry or stress makes it hard for a child to function normally, an anxiety disorder should be considered.

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This condition typically includes symptoms in difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior. Some children with ADHD have symptoms in all of these categories, while others might have symptoms in only one.
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autism spectrum disorder is a serious developmental disorder that appears in early childhood — usually before age 3. Though symptoms and severity vary, ASD always affects a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others.
  • Eating disorders. Eating disorders — such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder — are serious, even life-threatening, conditions. Children can become so preoccupied with food and weight that they focus on little else.
  • Mood disorders. Mood disorders — such as depression and bipolar disorder — can cause a child to feel persistent feelings of sadness or extreme mood swings much more severe than the normal mood swings common in many people.
  • Schizophrenia. This chronic mental illness causes a child to lose touch with reality (psychosis). Schizophrenia most often appears in the late teens through the 20s.

Signs of Mental disorders in Children

Warning signs that your child might have a mental health condition include:

  • Mood changes. Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school.
  • Intense feelings. Be aware of feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason — sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing — or worries or fears intense enough to interfere with daily activities.
  • Behavior changes. These include drastic changes in behavior or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behavior. Fighting frequently, using weapons and expressing a desire to badly hurt others also are warning signs.
  • Difficulty concentrating. Look for signs of trouble focusing or sitting still, both of which might lead to poor performance in school.
  • Unexplained weight loss. A sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives might indicate an eating disorder.
  • Physical symptoms. Compared with adults, children with a mental health condition might develop headaches and stomachaches rather than sadness or anxiety.
  • Physical harm. Sometimes a mental health condition leads to self-injury, also called self-harm. This is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. Children with a mental health condition also might develop suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide.
  • Substance abuse. Some kids use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their feelings.

How do health care providers diagnose mental illness in children?

Mental health conditions in children are diagnosed and treated based on signs and symptoms and how the condition affects a child’s daily life. There are no simple tests to determine if something is wrong.

To make a diagnosis, your child’s doctor might recommend that your child be evaluated by a specialist, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, psychiatric nurse, mental health counselor or behavioral therapist.

Your child’s doctor or mental health provider will work with your child to determine if he or she has a mental health condition based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — a guide published by the American Psychiatric Association that explains the signs and symptoms that mark mental health conditions.

Your child’s doctor or mental health provider will also look for other possible causes for your child’s behavior, such as a history of medical conditions or trauma. He or she might ask you questions about your child’s development, how long your child has been behaving this way, teachers’ or caregivers’ perceptions of the problem, and any family history of mental health conditions.

Diagnosing mental illness in children can be difficult because young children often have trouble expressing their feelings, and normal development varies from child to child. Despite these challenges, a proper diagnosis is an essential part of guiding treatment.

Treatment

 Common treatment options for children who have mental health conditions include:
  • Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy or behavior therapy, is a way to address mental health concerns by talking with a psychologist or other mental health provider. During psychotherapy, a child might learn about his or her condition, moods, feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Psychotherapy can help a child learn how to respond to challenging situations with healthy coping skills.
  • Medication. Your child’s doctor or mental health provider might recommend that your child take certain medications — such as stimulants, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antipsychotics or mood stabilizers — to treat his or her mental health condition.
Some children benefit from a combination of approaches. Consult your child’s doctor or mental health provider to determine what might work best for your child, including the risks or benefits of specific medications.

Learning disorders in Children

A learning disorder is a disorder that affects a person’s ability to acquire and use academic skills, such as reading and calculating. Learning disorders aren’t the same as mental or physical disabilities, and don’t reflect a child’s intelligence. Instead, learning disorders affect a child’s ability to complete a task or use certain skills, particularly in school.

The most common learning disorders include:

  • Dyslexia. Dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading, spelling and recalling known words.
  • Dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is a learning disorder related to math concepts. Signs include difficulty solving even simple math problems or sequencing information or events.
  • Nonverbal learning disability. This learning disorder is characterized by difficulty with nonverbal cues, such as coordination and body language.
  • Dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is a learning disorder characterized by difficulty with handwriting, spelling, and thinking and writing at the same time.

Some children might have more than one learning disorder.

 

What Causes Learning Disorder 

Factors that might influence the development of learning disorders include:

  • Genetics. Some learning disorders, such as reading and math disorders, are hereditary.
  • Medical conditions. Poor growth in the uterus (severe intrauterine growth restriction), exposure to alcohol or drugs before being born, and very-low birthweight are risk factors that have been linked with learning disorders. Head injuries might also play a role in the development of learning disorders.
  • Environmental exposure. Exposure to high levels of lead has been linked to an increased risk of learning disorders.

 

Identifying Learning Disorder 

Identifying a learning disorder can be difficult. Your child might have a learning disorder if he or she:

  • Has difficulty understanding and following instructions
  • Has trouble remembering what someone just told him or her
  • Lacks coordination in walking, sports or skills such as holding a pencil
  • Easily loses or misplaces homework, school books or other items
  • Has difficulty understanding the concept of time
  • Resists doing homework or activities that involve reading, writing or math, or consistently can’t complete homework assignments without significant help
  • Acts out or shows defiance, hostility or excessive emotional reactions at school or while doing academic activities, such as homework or reading

 

Management Options 

If your child has a learning disorder, your child’s doctor or school might recommend:

  • Extra help. A reading specialist, math tutor or other trained professional can teach your child techniques to improve his or her academic skills. Tutors can also teach children organizational and study skills.
  • Individualized education program (IEP). Your child’s school might develop an IEP for your child to create a plan for how he or she can best learn in school. Find out if your state has legislation regarding IEPs.
  • Therapy. Depending on the learning disorder, some children might benefit from therapy. For example, speech therapy can help children who have language disabilities. Occupational therapy might help improve the motor skills of a child who has writing problems.
  • Medication. Your child’s doctor might recommend medication to lessen the toll of a learning disorder. If your child has depression or severe anxiety, certain medications might help. Talk to your child’s doctor about the risks and benefits.
  • Complementary and alternative medicine. Some research shows that complementary and alternative treatments, such as music therapy, can benefit children who have learning disorders. Further research is needed, however.

 

 

Note on Children’s health

Nutrition and fitness are the cornerstones of children’s health.

To give your child a head start on lifelong fitness, consider children’s sports and other kid-friendly physical activities. Chances are a few sports will spark your child’s interest. Consider other classic tips from children’s health experts, such as encouraging activity — not exercise — and setting a good example yourself.

You can also promote children’s health by encouraging your child to eat a variety of healthy foods and control portion sizes. Learn which nutrients are necessary, in what amounts and how the guidelines change as a child grows older. Of course, other children’s health issues matter, too — such as vaccines, child safety and social issues.

Preshcool Children

Making conscious choices about preschool children’s health today can lead to good habits and good behavior throughout childhood. After all, teaching your preschooler to make healthy food choices now sets the stage for a lifelong healthy diet.And understanding typical preschool developmental milestones can help you monitor your preschooler’s growth and development.

Elementary Students 

Concerns about elementary students typically focus on school issues — such as bullying, school nutrition and sex education.

Childhood bullying and school violence can have lifelong consequences for elementary students. If your child is being bullied, take the situation seriously. Help your child create a plan to stop bullying in its tracks.

When talk of elementary children’s health turns to sex education, remember that children in this age group don’t need a single tell-all discussion. Follow your child’s cues about what he or she needs to know — and when.

It’s also important to know why elementary students get sick so often and the best ways to avoiding catching an illness in the classroom. Better yet, you can use the same tips to prevent spreading illness at home.