Pay attention to children's mental health

Children can suffer from a full range of mental illnesses, just like adults.

It can be difficult to tell if a child’s behavior is just normal childhood behavior or signs of mental illness. In general, the National Institute of Mental Health says, if a child’s behavior lasts for a few weeks or more, causes distress for the child or their family and interferes with their school, consider seeking help. You should seek help immediately if a child’s behavior is unsafe or if the child talks about wanting to hurt themselves or others.

Signs of mental illness in children

Once again, it’s important to remember that some of these are normal childhood behaviors. If you are concerned at any point, it’s worth talking to your pediatrician just for peace of mind. Here are some signs that should cause concern:

• Frequent tantrums or being intensely irritable.

• Often talking about worries or fears.

• Complaining about frequent stomachaches or headaches without a medical cause.

• Sleeping too much or too little, having frequent nightmares or seeming sleepy during the day.

• Not being interested in playing with other children.

• Struggling academically or having difficulty making friends.

• Spending more time alone and avoiding social activities with friends or family.

• Engaging in self-harm behaviors, or risky or destructive behaviors.

Mental health assessments for children

Health care professionals can help you understand what’s behind your child’s behavior and give you a treatment plan and way to move forward. A comprehensive assessment may include talking to the child’s parents about their developmental history, temper, relationships, medical history, interests, abilities and prior treatments. They’ll also gather information from school, such as any standardized tests, reports on behavior and other details. Of course, they’ll also talk to the child to get their take and experiences. There may also be some testing and behavioral observations.

Choosing a mental health professional

Your pediatrician may have recommendations, or you can talk to friends or family for recommendations. It’s important to choose a mental health professional who has training and experience treating your child’s particular problem. Here are some questions you might ask a potential provider:

• Do you use treatment approaches supported by research?

• Do you involve parents in the treatment?

• Will there be homework between sessions?

• How will progress from treatment be evaluated?

• How soon can we expect to see progress?

• How long should treatment last?

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