The beauty of children is that they’re blank slates, unfazed by current world events and lost in their own creative, imaginative world. As parents or guardians, we must do our best to keep them far away from the stresses and reality we’ve come to understand as adults, but that’s not always the case. Unfortunately, some children end up growing too fast due to a traumatic event in their lives, hardening them and writing something terrible on their blank slates. Whether it’s a broken home fraught with fighting or abusive parents or a traumatic event from a sexual predator, it’s important to learn the signs of a child’s mental health and how stress and trauma affect them.
A child’s mental health is a vital part of their overall health and well-being. It includes their emotional, mental and behavioral well-being, affecting how they feel, think, and act. Unfortunately, you can’t always determine what a child has been through. All children react to stress differently, and some will act like they are fine on the surface. Mental disorders, which stress and trauma can worsen, can seriously change how a child learns, behaviors, and gets through their day.
There are various ways to determine a child’s mental health and whether they have endured trauma or stress. Between 2016 and 2019, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used data to indicate positive mental health in children. Of those surveyed, 97 percent of children showed affection, 87.9 percent showed resilience, 98.7 percent were positive, and 93.9 percent were curious. These children were ages 3 to 5. The same percentages went down significantly as children got older, highlighting the stressful nature of aging.
The most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children include anxiety problems, behavior problems, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression. Between 2016 and 2019, children and teens ages 3 through 17 had the following: 9.8 percent were diagnosed with ADHD, equating to 6 million, with 9.4, or 5.8 million with anxiety. Even worse, 8.9 percent or 5.5 million had behavioral problems, while 4.4 percent, translating to 2.7 million, were depressed. Some conditions occur together. Having another mental disorder was most common in children with depression – three in four children with depression also had anxiety.
The same statistics show that depression and anxiety have increased over time. Children aged 6 through 17 were diagnosed with anxiety and depression at 5.4 percent in 2003, up to 8 percent in 2007, and then 8.4 percent in 2011-2012. For adolescents, substance use, depression, and suicide are significant topics.
An estimated 15.1 percent of those aged 12 through 17 had a major depressive episode in 2019, while 36.7 percent had persistent feelings of hopelessness or sadness. The same figures found that 4.1 percent had a substance use disorder (SUD), 1.6 percent had an alcohol use disorder (AUD), and 3.2 percent had an illicit drug use disorder. Even worse, 18.8 percent seriously considered attempting suicide, 15.7 percent made a suicide plan, and 8.9 percent attempted suicide.
Children and their mental health is a topic that deserves more attention. Below, we explain in-depth what’s causing these problems and what you as a parent can do to keep them children until it’s time to grow up.
What Plays a Role in Early Childhood Mental Health?
As mentioned above, early experiences shape the developing brain. However, one thing that’s not discussed enough is how it also lays the foundation for solid mental health. Any disruptions to this developmental process, whether it’s the loss of a parent, going through cancer treatment, or the vast array of issues that can affect children, can impair a child’s capacity to learn and relate to others. Unfortunately, this can cause lifetime issues. Improving your child’s relationships and experiences early in life can reduce costly issues later on, including homelessness, incarceration, and failing to complete high school.
Also, as mentioned earlier, significant mental health problems can and do occur in children. The statistics show that they can experience anxiety disorders, conduct disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and neurodevelopmental issues like autism early in life. However, children process emotional experiences differently than their adult counterparts, meaning it’s far more challenging for doctors to diagnose the problem than it is in adults.
Although genetics might play a role and affect childhood mental health, experiences are responsible for shaping them. Genetics are not the end all be all, even though they contain instructions that tell our bodies how to work. The interaction between genes and stress-induced experiences early in life will lay the poor foundation for mental health that persists well into adulthood.
Toxic stress is responsible for damaging the brain and increases the odds of children developing significant mental health issues. In some cases, these will appear immediately, while others will emerge later in life. Toxic stress can affect a child’s readiness for school, academic achievements, and both their physical and mental health throughout life. Some circumstances associated with family stress include poverty, which elevates the chances of severe mental health problems. An estimated 11 million children are living in poverty in the United States. Young children who are victims of domestic violence, neglect, or have parents with mental health or substance abuse issues are especially vulnerable.
While it’s never too late, paying attention to these issues earlier on is better. Some children can overcome the odds and the severe challenges of early stress, trauma, and emotional harm. However, as resilient as children might be, there are limits to overcoming the odds of psychological adversity. You can avoid most mental health problems by responding to them early.
When children are removed from their traumatizing experiences and placed in a loving home, developmental improvements are the result of emotional adaptability, relating to others, and self-understanding. When children can overcome these issues, they’re likely the beneficiary of exceptional and supportive parents. It’s vital to intervene early on to reduce the child’s risk of psychological harm that lasts a lifetime.
If a child’s mental well-being is harmed, it must be treated. The emotional well-being of young children is directly linked to the functioning of their caregivers and their families. If these relationships become abusive, neglectful, or psychologically harmful, they increase the chances of developing early mental health problems. Again, they manifest differently in children, meaning they’re much harder to diagnose. These can persist until it’s too late and trouble starts, such as them having suicidal thoughts or abusing drugs or alcohol. Reducing these stressors early on requires addressing the issues within the family.
Knowing the Signs: Identifying Mental Illness or Stress in Children
It’s often a challenge for parents or guardians to identify mental illness or stress in children. As blank slates, they’re unaware of how to express their emotions. Sometimes, this can be in the form of rebellion, but many children won’t get the treatment they need. Understanding how to recognize these signs of mental illness will help your child significantly later on in life.
Understanding mental health disorders in children is often challenging because normal childhood development differs from one child to the next and often involves change. Symptoms of a disorder are dependent on the child’s age. Most children are unable to explain how they feel or why they’re acting a certain way.
The most common mental health disorders in children or developmental disorders as a result of trauma or stress that must be addressed by a professional include the following:
- Eating disorders: Since children can’t always express their feelings, it could result in an eating disorder. It’s defined as a preoccupation with what they consider the perfect body type and is coupled with thoughts about weight, weight loss, and unsafe eating or dieting habits. Eating disorders like bulimia, anorexia, and binge-eating disorder can lead to emotional and social dysfunction, which can lead to life-threatening issues.
- Anxiety disorders: Children with anxiety disorders endure persistent fears or anxiety that interrupt their ability to participate in play, school, or other age-appropriate social situations. The most common diagnoses include generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) show difficulty with attention, impulsive behaviors, hyperactivity, or a combination of these issues.
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): Autism is a neurological condition that shows up early in childhood, typically before age 3. While the severity will vary from one child to the other, a child with this condition will have unique challenges communicating and interacting with other children and adults.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs because of a traumatic experience. It could be from the loss of a parent, witnessing a severe accident, or being the victim of sexual abuse. It consists of prolonged emotional stress, distressing memories, anxiety, and disruptive behaviors that stem from traumatic events.
- Depression and mood disorders: Depression consists of persistent feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in things the child once found joy in. It interrupts their ability to function at school and how they interact with peers, teachers, or parents. Bipolar disorder is one mood disorder that causes extreme mood swings between depression and extreme emotional highs. These can be risks or unsafe.
- Schizophrenia: Although it’s not common in children, schizophrenia is a condition that causes someone to lose touch with reality. It most often shows up in your late teens or early 20s. The disorder can cause delusions, hallucinations, and disordered thinking and behavior.
Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Children
If you’re concerned about mental illness in your child as a result of stress or trauma, the Mayo Clinic highlights the following signs of a mental health disorder:
- Significant weight gain or weight loss
- Persist sadness that lasts more than two weeks and beyond
- Changes in the child’s eating habits
- Extreme irritability or unusual outbursts
- Joking about death or suicide
- Hiring themselves or talking about hurting themselves
- Withdrawal from or avoiding social interactions they typically enjoyed
- Drastic changes in their behavior, mood, or personality
- Out-of-control behavior that can become harmful
- Difficulty sleeping or signs of insomnia
- Inability to concentrate
- Constant complaints about having headaches or stomachaches
- Avoiding or missing school
- Noticeable changes in their academic performance
If you’re concerned that your child has a mental health condition, you must speak with their primary care physician. If there are specific behaviors that concern you, tell the doctor. You must also talk to their close friends, teachers, relatives, or other caregivers and ask if they’ve also witnessed changes in your child’s behavior. You should also sit down with your child and ask them if anything out of the ordinary has happened to them recently that could have influenced this behavioral change. Take all of this information and bring it to their doctor.
Traumatic events are the most likely trigger for mental health problems in children and young people, especially if they’re genetically prone to certain conditions. Changes often serve as triggers, such as moving into a new home, changing schools, or the birth of a new sibling. These are more innocent triggers. While some children who start at new schools are excited at the prospect of meeting new friends and engaging in new activities, others might experience severe anxiety.
It’s more common for teenagers to experience angst and emotional turmoil as they transition into adulthood. A vital aspect of growing up is accepting these changes and working out who you are. Some teenagers find this challenging, and becoming an adult can cause them to experiment with drugs or alcohol to “self-medicate” and ease the transition.
Will Some Children Experience Mental Health Problems More than Others?
Risk factors put some children and young adults at higher risk of experiencing health issues over others. However, even though a child experiences them doesn’t mean they’ll end up developing a mental health issue. The most common factors include the following:
- Children with parents who separate or get divorced
- The death of someone close to them, whether it be a parent, sibling, or family member
- A parent with mental health problems or substance abuse issues
- Parents that are in legal trouble or go to jail
- Having long-term physical illnesses
- Poverty or homelessness
- Children who are victims of severe bullying
- Children who are victims of sexual abuse
- Children who experience discrimination
- Children who have difficulties in school
- Caring for relatives or taking on adult responsibilities
How Is Childhood Mental Illness Diagnosed?
As we’ve discussed several times throughout this article, diagnosing mental illness in children that are victims of stress or trauma can be difficult. They all express their symptoms differently, but if you’re a concerned parent, you’ll notice these changes. Mental health conditions in children and young adults are diagnosed and treated based on specific signs and symptoms. They’ll also be determined by how much they affect your child’s day-to-day living.
In order to make a proper diagnosis, your child’s doctor will suggest they’re evaluated by a specifical. This might include a psychologist, psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse, clinical social worker, or some other form of mental health care professional. The evaluation will include a mixture of the following:
- Digging up their medical history
- An extensive medical exam
- Family history of mental and physical health
- History of emotional or physical trauma
- A full overview of their academic history to determine where the changes occurred
- A full overview of their symptoms and the concerns you have as a parent
- An extensive, in-depth interview with the parent(s)
- Standardized assessment and questionnaire for both children and parent
- Conversations with the child and extensive observations of their behavior
Diagnosing mental health disorders in children is a more intensive experience than with adults because young children often have trouble expressing or understanding how they feel. “Normal” development varies from one child to the next, and the healthcare provider may change their diagnosis as they learn the case better.
How Is Mental Illness in Children Treated?
Below, we’ll discuss the most common options doctors consider for children with mental health disorders.
Psychotherapy, also referred to as behavioral therapy or talk therapy, is an important way to address mental health concerns. The child will speak with a psychologist and other mental health professionals deemed necessary to make a diagnosis.
For younger children, psychotherapy might include games or playtime as a way to coax them into talking about what’s happened to them. The child must feel comfortable in their environment to speak freely. During psychotherapy, children will learn how to express their feelings and thoughts, how to respond to them and learn healthy coping skills.
Genetics play a role in whether or not medication will be necessary. Some children have a chemical imbalance in their brain and will require medication to overcome their illness. The healthcare provider or mental health professional will determine whether or not medication is necessary. It could include an antidepressant for depression, a stimulant for ADHD, anti-anxiety medication to alleviate anxiety or an antipsychotic/mood stabilizer. Each treatment plan will consist of a different approach. The healthcare provider will discuss the risks, side effects, and benefits of medication. As a parent, you will have the final say on what goes into your child’s body.
How Can You Help Children Cope with Mental Illness?
As a parent, you will play the most crucial role in your child’s recovery. You must support their treatment plan. Once you know they’re doing better, it’ll have a domino effect, meaning your stress levels can be reduced. Watching children battle mental illness as a result of stress or trauma is incredibly hard as a parent. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome it and help them cope with their mental illness. Below, we’ll discuss what you can do as a parent to help them cope with their diagnosis.
- Take time to research the illness and learn about it. It will help you approach your child the right way.
- Consider counseling for the entire family to treat all members in the treatment plan.
- Enroll in parent training programs, particularly those that help children with a mental illness diagnosis.
- Ask your child’s doctor or mental health professional for advice on how to approach the situation and handle their often overwhelming behavior.
- Look into stress management techniques to help you respond calmly. Remember, a healthy, strong parent is one that can get their child on the right track faster.
- Find ways to relax and have fun with your child.
- Praise your child for their abilities and strength.
- Work with the child to find the proper support.
Remember, the earlier you spot a mental health problem stemming from stress or trauma, the better the outcome will be, so don’t wait another day to get help.