Close to 5 million in the United States are currently struggling with one or more mental illnesses that significantly disrupt their daily life. In any given year, about 20% (or nearly a quarter) of children will be diagnosed with a mental illness. There are many reasons that a child may develop a mental illness, including physical factors such as genetics, brain chemistry, and environmental causes such a prenatal exposure to toxins that are involved in the development of a childhood mental illness. Children often have no single root cause for a mental illness. Many mental health disorders are treated very effectively with a combination of education interventions, occupational interventions, specific types of therapies, and medication.
It can be a particular challenge for healthcare providers to identify and diagnose childhood mental illnesses as children are very different than adults as they experience many changes – mental, physical, and emotional – throughout their natural development. Children are also in the process of learning to cope with, adapt, and relate to others and the world around them. Additionally, every child is unique and learns and matures at his or her own pace; what’s considered “normal” for one child falls in a wide spectrum of abilities and behaviors. This means that healthcare providers must consider the ways in which a child functions at home, within the family system, with peers, at school, as well as the child’s age and symptom presentation. Diagnosis of a mental illness in a child should entail a variety of comprehensive medical, developmental, and mental health evaluations.
Early diagnosis of mental health conditions in children is very important as children who struggle with undiagnosed or untreated mental health problems may develop lower scholastic achievements, display greater involvement in the criminal justice system, and have challenges in finding stable foster care or familial relations. Prevention of childhood mental health disorders usually tries to address both specific and nonspecific risk factors, strengthen protective factors, and use approaches that are appropriate for each child’s developmental level as well as their age.
What Are The Symptoms of Childhood Mental Health Disorders?
The symptoms of childhood mental health disorders will vary based upon a variety of factors including individual diagnosis, genetics, life experiences, and brain chemistry. Symptoms of childhood mental illnesses may include:
- Changes in eating or sleep patterns
- Extreme complaints of physical problems such as stomach aches or pains
- Abuse of drugs or alcohol
- Inability to cope with daily activities and problems
- Pervasive negative moods
- Thoughts of death, dying
- Frequent angry outbursts
- Defying authority, cutting class, stealing, damaging property
- Changes in school performance
- Increase in time spent alone
- Decrease in interest in friends or activities once enjoyed
- Extreme worrying or anxiety
- Nightmares and night terrors
- Aggression or persistent disobedience
- Frequent temper tantrums
What Are The Most Common Mental Health Disorders In Children?
Childhood mental health disorders are quite common and can be extremely severe; approximately one fourth of children and adolescents experience some type of mental disorder in any given year. The most common types of mental health conditions include the following:
Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental disorders including overanxious disorder of childhood or separation anxiety. Children with anxiety disorders feel dread and fear in response to certain situations as well as physical symptoms of anxiety such as increased heart rate and sweating.
Symptoms of anxiety disorders in children will vary from those experienced by adults and may include:
- Extreme worry about school, health, and safety of family members
- Preoccupation with worst-case scenarios and feelings of dread
- Stomach aches
- Muscle tension
Treatment for childhood anxiety disorders is aimed at correcting the negative thought patterns using a type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and providing guidance for these children to learn different ways to react to frightening feelings. Medication is occasionally used to manage childhood anxiety disorders.
Depressive disorders in children are much different from the everyday emotional ups and downs of childhood. Symptoms of depression in children are often overlooked as a part of normal growth and development and often go untreated and undiagnosed.
Symptoms of childhood depression will vary from child to child and should always be taken very seriously. Symptoms of childhood depression include:
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Persistently sad mood
- Inability to feel pleasure or happiness
Treatment for childhood depression is a multidisciplinary approach that involves a variety of therapeutic techniques and occasionally medication management.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children and teens may develop if the child has lived through a particularly traumatic event or series of traumatic events which could have caused harm to themselves or someone they love. These events may include neglect, childhood emotional abuse, childhood sexual abuse, physical child abuse, or other violent crimes.
Symptoms of childhood PTSD will vary based on the type of traumatic event, whether it was a one-time event or something that occurred over a period of time and may include:
- Night terrors
- Worry and distress
- Sadness, anger
- Feeling alone and different than others
Treatment of PTSD in children may include therapeutic interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, a way of working through the traumatic events in order to reduce worry and stress. Other therapies may include family education, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and play therapy.
Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is a condition in which a child displays an ongoing pattern of defiant, uncooperative, hostile, and frustrating behaviors toward those in authority. These symptoms often disrupt the normal flow of daily activities, especially those within the school and the family system.
Symptoms of ODD will vary among children based on the presence of other behavioral problems, learning disabilities, anxiety disorders, and mood disorders, and may include:
- Repeated temper tantrums
- Arguing with adults
- Blaming others for his or her mistakes
- Spitefulness and revenge seeking behaviors
- Using inappropriate or obscene language
Treatment of ODD in children is often based on many factors, including the child’s age, symptom severity, and an ability of the child to participate in therapy. Treatment of ODD may include therapeutic interventions and medications.
Extreme aggression in children can be very frustrating for both the child and caregivers as the aggression may come out of nowhere and be exhibited in a wide array of behaviors. Many children who struggle with extreme aggression have poor impulse control and may struggle with school and home life.
Symptoms of aggression in children may include a wide range of behaviors including
- Picking fights with people older and bigger than them
- Self-defeating aggressive behaviors
- Easily distracted
- Poor impulse control
Treatment for extreme aggression in children may include a variety of therapeutic techniques to help your child learn appropriate ways to handle their emotions and react in situations that may trigger aggression. Treatment may include medications to reduce symptoms and allow your child to succeed at home, with friends, and at school.
Treatment Approaches for Childhood Mental Illnesses
After we receive a referral for services, we will work with you and your child to complete a variety of evaluations to determine the best course of action in treating your child’s mental illness and other disorders. We will sit down and work with you and your child to create a treatment plan that addresses all of your child’s needs and makes certain we are all operating on the same page. Some of the most common types of treatment approaches for childhood mental illnesses include:
Individual therapy: our clinically-experienced therapists will use an array of therapeutic techniques to help children with mental health disorders learn to develop coping skills, help them work through their emotions, teach techniques for emotional regulation, and assist the development of peer and social relationship skills. Our therapists often use cognitive behavioral therapy to help children with mental illness understand their negative thought patterns and understand the ways in which their thoughts impact their behaviors. Therapy is especially important for children struggling with mental illness as it allows them to express their feelings in a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere.
Group therapy: group therapy is an excellent way for children struggling with mental health disorders to work on their behaviors with their peers who are facing other challenging situations. The groups we offer will focus on a variety of topics and may include anger management, deep breathing, social skills, positive choices, impulse reduction, actions and consequences, and following directions. The types of groups your child will join will depend on his or her needs and the suggestions of the treatment team.
Family Therapy: Including the loved ones and family is vital to the treatment of childhood mental health disorders as it allows us the ability to make sure all lines of communication are open. We meet with our families no less than one time per month. These sessions are lead by one of your child’s doctors and are primarily child-focused. These sessions are designed to make certain that you and your child’s therapy team are on the same page with your child’s treatment. We will offer at-home care suggestions that will ensure that your child gets the practice he or she needs to be successful in his or her recovery from mental illness.
Medication management: Some children who are struggling with mental illnesses may benefit from a short course of medication to help control symptoms and increase your child’s ability to fully participate in the treatment program. If medication is used, we will constantly monitor your child and make certain we are using the right medication at the right dose to ensure optimal therapeutic results.
As a holistic treatment center and mental health clinic, Ascent Children’s Health System in Arkansas also provides a number of experiential programs for your child. These methods may include:
- Sensory rooms
- Therapy gym
- Feeding clinicians
- Handwriting without tears
At Ascent Children’s Health Services, we’ve helped many families and children who have a diagnosed mental illness learn a new, positive way of life.