By: Janet Angueira

Mental health problems in children can be hard for parents to identify. As a result many children who could benefit from treatment do not get the help they need. It can be difficult for parents to distinguish signs and symptoms of a problem from normal childhood behavior. Furthermore, concerns about the stigma of mental health problems, the cost of treatment, and the use of medications might prevent parents from seeking help.

Children can experience a variety of mental health conditions including:

  • Anxiety disorders – When worry or stress make it hard for a child to function normally in their daily activities, an anxiety disorder should be considered.
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – symptoms include difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – this disorder usually appears before the age of 3. ASD affects a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others.
  • Eating Disorders – symptoms are serious and can be life threatening if a child becomes preoccupied with food and weight and are not able focus on much else.
  • Mood disorders – these include conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder that can cause a child to feel persistent sadness, irritability, or have extreme mood swings.
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – children and teens may experience PTSD symptoms if they are exposed to situations in which they or someone else could have been badly hurt such as sexual or physical abuse, violent crimes, natural disasters, school shootings or car crashes.

So what is a parent to do? There are warning signs that a child might have a mental health condition:

  • Mood changes that include feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause relationship problems
  • Feelings of overwhelming fear or worries intense enough to interfere with daily activities
  • Behavior changes that include changes in behavior or personality or out of control behavior
  • Difficulty concentrating or sitting still which might lead to poor school performance
  • A sudden loss of appetite and weight loss, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives might indicate an eating disorder
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches might indicate a mental health condition
  • Self-injury such as cutting or burning oneself
  • Suicidal thoughts or an attempt at suicide
  • The use of drugs or alcohol to cope with feelings

If you are concerned about your child, consult with your child’s doctor. Consider talking to teachers, friends or relatives to see if they have noticed any changes in your child’s behavior. Your child might be referred to a specialist such as a psychiatrist, mental health counselor, or social worker to work with your child to determine any mental health conditions. Common treatment options include:

Psychotherapy which can help a child learn how to respond to challenging situations with healthy coping skills
Medication to treat the mental health condition
A combination of approaches to determine what might work best for the child

A parent might feel helpless, angry and frustrated before understanding what is going on with their child. The child’s mental health provider can help parents with how they interact with the child as well as how to handle difficult behavior. Seek advice. Don’t avoid getting help. With the right support, you can find out whether your child has a mental health condition and explore treatment options to help him or her thrive.

For more information about JCS services for children and families, contact ACCESS Services at (305) 576-6550. The 2-1-1 and (305) 358-HELP (4357) helplines are also available 24/7, 365 days a year for information and referrals and crisis counseling.