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Signs Your Child May Be Struggling with Their Mental Health

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Mental health disorders are not uncommon in the United States, with estimated prevalence rates around 10 percent in children and adolescents. This is similar to the prevalence rate for other relatively common childhood medical conditions, such as eczema, seasonal allergies, asthma, migraines and constipation. Furthermore, 1 in 6 children between the ages of 0-8 years old in the United States are diagnosed with a mental, behavioral or developmental disorder. While mental health disorders can have a genetic component, there are many other external factors that can lead to the development of a mental health disorder. Some examples are exposure to a traumatic event(s), experiencing a loss, underdeveloped coping skills and environments that reinforce problematic behaviors.

Rates of mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression, are rising. Anxiety and depression affect many children, with 9.4% of children ages 3-17 years (approximately 5.8 million) diagnosed with anxiety in 2016-2019 and 4.4% of children ages 3-17 years (approximately 2.7 million) diagnosed with depression in 2016-2019. Additionally, youth have experienced a lot of change due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and mental health concerns continue to increase among children and adolescents. Here are things to look out for that could signal your child is struggling with mental health and how to best address it.

Signs to watch for

  • Sadness
  • Isolating from friends, family or social interactions
  • Disengaging from favorite hobbies and activities
  • Hurting oneself
  • Talking about death, suicide or harming others
  • Extreme irritability or anger
  • Decline in self-esteem
  • Changes in behavior
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Difficulty sleeping or excessive sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in academic performance
  • In younger children, you might notice regression, clinginess, missing milestones or loss of confidence

What Parents Can Do to Help

Supporting your child’s mental health is part of the solution. As a parent, you play an important role in helping your child cope and finding ways for your whole family to help. Here are some things you can do to help your child:

  • Educate yourself. Learn about warning signs and risk factors and seek out expert guidance on what to look for and ways to help.
  • Seek professional intervention when needed. The symptoms of many mental health disorders can improve significantly with targeted cognitive and behavioral interventions. Psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed clinical social workers and licensed professional counselors can assist. For the best outcomes, seek out a provider with experience working with youths.
  • Identify ways to relax, connect or have fun with your child. All children need ways to relax and disconnect from stressors. Especially if your child is coping with difficult thoughts, feelings and/or behaviors, they may be more likely to choose unhealthy coping strategies and may be more likely to need support to identify pro-social coping alternatives. Schedule time to enjoy a preferred activity or to follow your child’s lead.
  • Praise your child's strengths and abilities. Even when youth are struggling, they still possess characteristics and behaviors that reflect helpful choices or strength and talent. As you are focusing on any concerning signs or symptoms, remember to also take time to value and recognize what your child is doing well.

Most importantly, your child should feel safe and be able to come to you if they are struggling. Listen to their feelings and validate any concerns your child might have. Assure your child that they are not alone because it is important to break down any stigmas they may have related to mental health.

If your child is not open with you about what they are going through, be vigilant and watch for any behavior changes or other signs that would indicate a mental health disorder. Talk with your child’s teacher or close relatives to see if they have noticed any changes in your child. Check in with your child regularly to show your support and offer guidance.

If you believe your child is dealing with a mental health disorder, turn to the experts. Talk to your child’s pediatrician or psychologist about the changes and behaviors you have noticed to figure out a treatment plan that is right for your child and your family.

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