It can be difficult to detect mental health problems in children because childhood development is a changing process that can account for a lot of up and down emotions. It can also be difficult to detect when a child needs the help of a mental health expert because the symptoms may differ according to a child’s age, and many children struggle to explain how they feel or why they behave a particular way.
May is mental health awareness month, but honestly, this is an issue that needs parental awareness all year long. When we hear that 1 in 5 U.S. adolescents aged 13-18 have experienced a serious mental health disorder and suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in young people aged 10-24, then we cannot ignore the seriousness of the problem in today’s children.
Previous surveys (before Covid’s lockdown) on teen mental health showed an increase in problems even before the pandemic hit. The percentage of teenagers saying they had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness rose from 26% in 2009 to 37% in 2019. The new survey had 44% saying they felt that way in 2021.*
Causes of Poor Mental Health in Children/Teens
Some children are born with a more anxious personality. Others pick up anxious behavior from being around anxious people. Stressful events can also cause a child to develop anxiety: frequent moves, parents fighting, the death of a close relative or friend, a serious illness or accident, and verbal or physical abuse, to name a few.
Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autistic spectrum disorders are also more prone to have problems with anxiety.
Although anxiety and depression can be linked, depression can be connected to other sources:
- Brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of your brain and body. When these chemicals are abnormal or impaired, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems changes, leading to depression.
- Hormones. Changes in the body’s balance of hormones may be involved in causing or triggering depression.
- Inherited traits. Depression is more common in people whose blood relatives — such as a parent or grandparent — also have the condition.
- Early childhood trauma. Traumatic events during childhood, such as physical or emotional abuse, or loss of a parent, may cause changes in the brain that make a person more susceptible to depression.
- Learned patterns of negative thinking. Teen depression may be linked to learning to feel helpless — rather than learning to feel capable of finding solutions for life’s challenges.**
There are also some risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing or triggering depression:
- Self-esteem issues such as weight, peer problems, bullying or academic struggles.
- Physical or sexual abuse.
- Personality disorders, anorexia, or bulimia.
- Learning disability.
- Chronic pain or illness.
- Certain personality traits, like low self-esteem, being self-critical or pessimistic.
- Alchohol or drug abuse.
- Sexual orientation in a hostile environment.
- Having a family member who died by suicide.
- Having a dysfunctional family and family conflict.
What’s a Parent to Look For?
The most important thing you can do as a parent is pay attention. Be intentional about connecting with your child and teen on a regular basis. Know their friends, keep up on how they are doing in school and sports, take time to listen and show interest. Be on the lookout for things like:
- Persistent sadness that lasts two weeks or more
- Withdrawing from or avoiding social interactions
- Hurting oneself or talking about hurting oneself
- Talking about death or suicide
- Outbursts or extreme irritability
- Out-of-control behavior that can be harmful
- Drastic changes in mood, behavior or personality
- Changes in eating habits
- Loss of weight
- Difficulty sleeping
- Frequent headaches or stomachaches
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in academic performance
- Avoiding or missing school**
What Should a Parent Do if You Suspect Your Child May Have Depression or Anxiety Problems?
I would like to suggest a step BEFORE this, before your child has a mental health issue. Being proactive can help lessen the issues when they arrive. At the very least, being proactive means you are better prepared.
Be proactive by being informed. Read books, listen to the experts, know what to look for. I have two very helpful resources for parents that I would like to suggest:
Read SEEN co-written by my friend Will Hutcherson. I’ve read the book and highly recommend it.
Invest in a simple, but powerful course called Parenting with Mental Health in Mind. It’s only $39 and well worth the investment. I have gone through the course and it is full of information that all parents need to hear.
(By the way, I am recommending this book and course because I believe in their value, and am not getting any type of compensation, financial or otherwise.)
If you feel that you are past the proactive stage and your child is facing mental health issues NOW, then please get them professional help if it is something that you have not been able to help them with. A counselor or therapist will be able to diagnose and treat your child’s problem. I frequently recommend parents take their children to local counselors when I sense that their child needs the help.
“My Child is Fine!“
That’s what I thought, until one day I got a phone call from a friend, who’s daughter was a friend of my daughter. She shared with me that my daughter had been talking to her friend about not wanting to live. This is the child who I thought was fine, who was just having normal teen problems. I never suspected that it went deeper. Thankfully, my husband and I were able to come beside her, support her and love her and she never attempted to follow through on that thought.
But the lesson in that experience is loud and clear. Love and connect with your child, be proactive by learning the signs, learning how you can best be there for your child, and learning where to go for help if you need it.
Beautiful fake smile. All it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul and they will never notice how broken you really are. Robin Williams
If you’d like to talk with someone about your child’s mental health, please set up a free into consultation. Together, we can find the next step for you to take in helping your child.
*CDC **Mayo Clinic