Answers to Questions About Your Child's Mental Health

Children can have mental health disorders that interfere with the way they think, feel, and act. Some behavior problems are part of normal child development. And some need professional help.

Children's mental health is as important as their physical health. A child who has a mental health problem needs to get help. Mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders can affect the child's future.

The following answers to questions parents often ask can help you protect your child's mental health.

How do I know if my child's problems are serious?

Problems deserve attention when they are severe, lasting, and affect daily activities.

Get help if your child:

  • Is often sad, worried, or fearful

  • Has major changes in appetite or sleep needs

  • Is spending most of their time alone instead of with friends or family

  • Has lower grades or less interest in school

  • Is hyperactive, impulsive, or has trouble focusing

  • Is self-destructive or overly aggressive toward others

  • Hurts, tortures, or kills animals

Where should I go for help?

First, have your child see his or her healthcare provider. The provider will first rule out any health conditions that could be causing the symptoms. If no conditions are found, the provider may advise you to take your child to a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or behavioral therapist. If your child goes to school, the school's staff (counselors, school psychologists, and teachers) may become important members of your child's treatment team.

How are mental disorders diagnosed in young children?

A mental health provider will make the diagnosis. He or she will take a detailed family history, write down your child's developmental history, and watch current symptoms. Standardized testing may also be done. A skilled mental health provider will analyze all of the information. If certain diagnostic criteria are met, he or she will make a diagnosis. These are based on the child's age and reports from parents and other caregivers or teachers.

Which mental disorders are often seen in children and teens?

  • Anxiety disorders. These are the most common mental health problems in children and teens. They include panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

  • ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). ADHD symptoms include poor attention and focus. Children with ADHD are easily distracted and act on impulse.

  • Depression. This affects mood, energy, interests, sleep, appetite, and overall functioning. Symptoms are extreme and are seen most days of the week. They can greatly interfere with the ability to function at home or at school.

  • Bipolar disorder. This illness causes extreme shifts in mood, energy, and functioning. Times of disruption switch off with periods of withdrawal and other depressive symptoms.

How are children with mental health problems treated?

Sometimes psychotherapies, behavioral strategies, classroom strategies, and family support may be all a child needs. In other cases, medicines are needed to help the child cope. If medicine is prescribed, the child should be watched and evaluated regularly.

If your child's mental health problems directly interfere with school performance, special laws will allow reasonable school accommodations for his or her needs. These protective laws fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Civil Rights Act. Talk with your child's teacher and principal to see if these legal protections apply to your child.

When untreated, mental health disorders can lead to school failure, drug abuse, violence, and even suicide.

Most children who receive the right kind of help get better. They go on to live full and healthy lives as adults. Getting help early is key to a positive result.