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Spotting Signs of Mental Illness in Children


No parent would ever want to think that there might be something wrong with their child, especially that their child might be struggling with mental illness. A child can rarely diagnose themselves though, so it really is up to adults around them to heed the warning signs and help them seek the right help and treatment.

One reason that mental illness in children often goes untreated is that many of the warning signs are often dismissed as ‘growing pains’ and ‘kid drama’. Indeed, children do have a tendency to be dramatic and to do impulsive things on occasions, so working out what is ‘normal’ and what is not can be very hard, even for the most vigilant parent.

Mental Illnesses that Commonly Affect Children 


There are a number of mental illnesses that can affect children. Some of the more common include:

Anxiety Disorders – Children can suffer from the same wide spectrum of anxiety disorders that adults can, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia and generalized anxiety disorder.

ADHD – ADHD is increasingly common in children and usually involves a combination of symptoms including hyperactivity, difficulty paying attention and episodes of compulsive behavior.

Eating Disorders – Eating disorders are another increasing problem for children, especially teens and tweens are eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia. Contrary to what many parents believe boys can suffer from eating disorders as well.

Mood Disorders – Mood disorders are often the hardest forms of mental illness to spot in children as some of the symptoms can mimic common adolescent emotions. However, mood disorders like bipolar disorder and depression are far more serious.

Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Children

Warning signs that your child might have a mental health condition include:


These are some of the things that you should be looking for that may signal that they need help:

Sudden Mood Changes – Kids are moody. However, if the mood swings are very intense and sudden, or they cause problems in relationships, either at home or at school, they may be a sign of something more serious.

Behavior Changes – Sudden behaviors that are completely out characterful like a sunny dispositioned child who suddenly begins fighting, expressing the desire to hurt others physically or new risk-taking behaviors may all be warning signs of a mental problem.

Also troubling is a normally social child who becomes withdrawn and less interested in their friends or less interested in their appearance than before, classic signs of at least mild depression.

Difficulty Concentrating – Children often have shorter attention spans than adults. However, if a child seems to have problems focusing on the task at hand however hard they try, then the chances are good that they are not being disobedient or rebellious, but displaying signs of an attention deficit disorder.

Weight Loss or a Change in Eating Habits – Eating disorders can, unfortunately, progress beyond mental illness into a physical disorder that kills. People with an eating disorder, even children, are very secretive about it. Rather than just looking for children not eating – many still do, they simply purge their bodies of the food later – watch for changes both in weight and body image as well.

Seeking Help 

The obvious place to seek help if you are concerned is your family doctor. Not all general practitioners are very good at dealing with mental illness though, especially in children. If you feel your concerns are not being taken seriously enough, which is sometimes the case, then there is nothing wrong with asking for a referral for second opinion from a specialist who is used to dealing with mental problems in adolescents.

Some parents do not seek help for their children because they worry that doing so will stigmatize the child and cause even more harm. These fears, though natural, should not stop them from doing so though. They simply need to be prepared to offer their full support to their child, whatever the eventual diagnosis – if any -made is.

Melanie Evans