Mental Health Treatment for Children
All children will have times of happiness, sadness, anger and every other emotion. Bad days, meltdowns and outbursts are expected and normal, especially in times of school or family stress. However, if these periods of heightened emotion last for a long time, severely disrupt school performance or relationships, or if there are safety concerns, mental health treatment is recommended. It is important to note that a family history of mental health problems can put a child at increased risk for a mental health disorder. Specific signs that your child may need help from a professional include the following:
- Persistent sadness on most days, for more than a week
- Dramatic change in weight or appetite
- Dramatic decrease in grades or school performance
- Frequent, intense worries about safety, feeling judged or embarrassing oneself, especially if it leads to avoidance of people or places
- Signs of anxiety or panic attacks, which include rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, jittery muscles, feeling outside of one’s body or the feeling that one might die
- Persistent anger or tantrums that seem inappropriate for your child’s age
- Thoughts of self-harm or of suicide
- Sudden loss of interest in previously enjoyable hobbies or activities
- Engaging in acts of violence
- Difficulty sitting still, concentrating and staying organized
- Ongoing difficulty making or keeping friendships that is upsetting to your child
- Dramatic changes in behavior, like refusing to leave one’s room for days or reportedly hearing or seeing things that others don’t
- Distorted thoughts about eating food
- Distorted thoughts about their body
- Periods of high energy, little sleep, elated or irritable mood, and risky behavior
- Drug and illegal substance use that impairs function
Types of Mental Health Treatment Available for Children
Depending on the age of your child and the issues they’re struggling with, psychotherapy, medication or both might be recommended. Psychotherapy is also commonly called therapy, or counseling. A common goal of therapy is to teach the child to manage intense emotions and disruptive behaviors, and to help caregivers respond to those intense emotions and disruptive behaviors.
Since depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems can lead to exaggerated or untrue thoughts or feelings about oneself, therapy helps the child to look at issues from a new perspective. Identifying alternative explanations for the way a child is feeling can reduce the stress associated with a mental health problem.
Therapy may also teach your child healthy coping skills for managing stress. These can include breathing techniques, art, meditation, exercise, verbal communication skills, prayer and more. Therapy tends to be most helpful when it takes the form of weekly, hourlong sessions where the child and/or the whole family meet with the therapist. There are many different types of therapy:
- Play therapy is used to help young children understand intense emotions or how to deal with stressful events using imagination and roleplay.
- Cognitive behavior therapy can help teenagers learn psychological tools for managing intense emotions. It can also help them develop personalized plans for managing stressful situations.
- Supportive and interpersonal therapies help young people by providing a supportive and confidential listener who will offer advice.
- Family therapy can help the whole family better understand one other and manage stressful relationships by increasing healthy communication.
- Medications can be used to help reduce the intensity of depressive or anxious thoughts and feelings. Medications can also help reduce impulsivity or aggression.
How To Find Mental Health Treatment
There are many types of providers with a variety of degrees. This list will help you understand the types of providers who can help treat your child.
- Psychologists (whose credentials include PhD and PsyD) can diagnose and provide psychological testing, individual and/or family therapy.
- Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) diagnose and provide therapy to patients.
- Child and adolescent psychiatrists (MD, DO) can provide diagnoses and therapy. They often help patients with medication.
- Psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNP, NP) can provide diagnoses, medication and therapy.
- Licensed professional counselors (LPC) and marriage and family therapists (MFT) also provide therapy.
Engaging With Your Child’s Treatment
If your child is reluctant to seek help, bring up your concerns during a relaxed moment, free from heightened emotions. Frequently remind them of your willingness to listen to them, but refrain from putting pressure on them to talk. Considering engaging another trusted adult like a coach, teacher, or religious community member.
You may be wondering how you can support your child’s mental health treatment. Here are a few tips to keep mind:
- Regularly check-in with your child and their provider.
- Ask your child what they want to get out of treatment and how you can help.
- Educate yourself about your child’s diagnosis, and search for other helpful resources which might include: Ochsner’s Boh Center for Child Development, Child Mind Institute (including their book list) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Make a Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychology appointment with Ochsner Health.