Children and Teens
Mental Health & Mental Illness
Mental, behavioral, & developmental disorders begin in early childhood. The sooner you get help for your child, the better chance she or he will have to live a full and healthy life.
A young person’s brain develops until the age of 25 and during this time children and adolescents acquire cognitive and emotional skills that shape their future mental health. They learn to manage emotions, develop healthy sleeping patterns, and learn social and problem-solving skills so they can cope with problems in healthy ways. Mentally healthy children and adolescents have a positive quality of life, can function well at home, in school, in their communities, and are learning how to assume adulthood.
Protective Factors for Mental Health
Promoting positive mental health can prevent some problems from starting — and for young people who have mental health disorders — early intervention and treatment can help lessen the impact on their lives. Protective factors include:
- Parental monitoring and support
- Engagement in school, with peers, athletics, church, and community
- Positive role model
- High self-esteem
- Academic Achievement
Risk Factors for Mental Illness
The environment where children and adolescents grow up helps shape their development and well-being. Being exposed to trauma and negative experiences at home, in school, online, or on social media increase their risk of mental illness. Trauma such as exposure to violence, bullying, poverty, physical or sexual abuse, and mental illness of a parent or caregiver can cause post-traumatic stress and other mental health disorders.
Other risk factors can include:
- Alcohol or drug use
- Peer Rejection
- Death of a family member or friend
- School violence
- Low self-esteem
Some Signs or Symptoms that a Child May Need Help:
- Social withdrawal
- Extreme fears or phobias
- Frequent sadness or crying
- Difficulty concentrating
- Anger outbursts/fighting/tantrums
- Drop in school grades
- Frequent nightmares
- Anxiety or excessive worry
- Signs of drug/alcohol use
- Defiant behaviors (rebelliousness, difficulty following rules, or disrespecting authority figures)
- Traumatic experience (sexual or physical abuse, domestic violence, loss of family member or friend, accidents, etc.).
- Hyperactive behavior
- Relationship problems
- Frequent stomach aches or headaches
- Frequent aggression or disobedience
- Changes in school performance
One in six U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 17 has a treatable mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
Common Mental Health Disorders
Fears and worries are typical in children but persistent or extreme forms of fear and/or sadness could be due to anxiety or depression. Anxiety symptoms can include trouble sleeping, fatigue, headaches, or stomach aches.
Occasionally being sad is a part of every child’s life but when they feel helpless or hopeless or uninterested in things they used to enjoy, they may be suffering from depression. Some behaviors in children with depression may include:
- Not wanting to do or enjoying doing fun activities
- Sleeping a lot more or a lot less than normal
- Changes in energy – being tired or tense and restless a lot of the time
- Feeling irritable, sad, or hopeless a lot of the time
- Eating a lot more or a lot less than usual
- Having a hard time paying attention
- Self-destructive behavior
- Feeling useless or worthless
It’s not always possible to know if someone is contemplating suicide but warning signs may include:
- Dangerous and life-threatening behaviors/actions
- Giving away personal possessions
- Increased drug and/or alcohol use
- Increased self-harm
- Talking or writing about death
- Feeling hopeless
- Withdrawing from family, friends, and community
Extreme depression can lead a child to think about suicide or plan for suicide. For youth ages 10-24 years, suicide is among the leading causes of death.
If you or someone you love needs immediate help, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Children occasionally have thoughts that may persist, and they feel like they have to perform certain actions to make the thoughts go away even if they don’t make sense. A child may have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) when the unwanted thoughts and behaviors they must do to stop the thoughts happen frequently, take up a lot of time, make them upset, or interfere with everyday activities. The thoughts are called obsessions and the behaviors are called compulsions. Examples of OCD behaviors:
- Having to do something over and over (washing hands, turning lights on and off, placing things in specific order, checking things over and over – like whether a door is locked).
- Having to think about or repeat something over and over (words and numbers) silently or out loud.
- Having unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses that occur frequently and which cause distress and/or anxiety.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Children may experience very stressful events at some point that affect how they feel and think and most of the time will recover from the trauma of the event. Some children who experience severe stress will be affected long-term. Some events that may cause long-term trauma could be the death of a family member or friend or experiencing and/or witnessing violence or significant injury. Symptoms of PTSD may include:
- Nightmares and/or sleep problems
- Intense and ongoing sadness or fear
- Being easily startled and constantly afraid of possible threats
- Feeling hopeless and acting withdrawn
- Reliving or replaying the event
- Avoiding people or places that remind them of the event
- Feeling numb or denying the event happened
- Becoming upset when hearing or thinking about the event
Ways to help your child
- Have frequent conversations
- Validate their concerns and experiences
- Create a safe space to feel comfortable sharing concerns
- Speak with your pediatrician
Globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents.
Pandemic Impact on Children’s Mental Health
The impact of Covid on children’s mental health can be significant because mental stress from a traumatic event or disaster can be harder on them. They understand less about the situation and feel less of a sense of control. They also have fewer experiences bouncing back from difficult situations. The most important thing a parent or caregiver can do to help a child navigate through the pandemic and other traumatic events is to manage their own stress by exercising, eating well, getting enough sleep, breathing techniques, and taking a break from news and other stressors. Parents will then be more equipped to help children by being a role model, focusing on the positive, and offering lots of love and affection. Other ways to help children cope include:
- Establishing and maintaining a daily routine
- Reassuring their child that they are safe
- Talking about how they deal with stress
- Demonstrating breathing techniques
- Connecting with family and friends
- Spending quality time together with activities such as reading, going for walks, playing board games, or creating art projects together
Children and teens may show stress in different ways. Some behaviors and changes to look out for may include:
- Excessive crying
- Frequent stomach aches
- Difficulties with attention and focus
- Frequent headaches or body aches
- Unhealthy eating — too much or too little
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Excessive worrying or sadness
- Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (such as bedwetting)
- Alcohol or drug use
- Problems at school/dropping grades
Since these changes may also be signs of a physical or mental health disorder, you should contact your child’s primary care physician to rule out other causes. If your child needs immediate medical attention, please call 911 or take them to your nearest hospital emergency room.
The ongoing pandemic is a world health crisis, and the situation is constantly evolving. Please get regular updates from a reliable source such as the CDC or World Health Organization to keep you and your family informed of the most up to date health and safety protocols.
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– NELSON MANDELA