Mental health disorders in children: What to know

May 26, 2021

It’s normal for kids, just like adults, to struggle from time to time. Anxiety about starting school, sadness at losing a pet, or nervousness upon meeting a new person is normal as kids grow up. But some issues can persist or even grow worse as a child gets older.

In fact, one in five children will develop a mental health disorder, with some showing signs as early as six years old.

Parents and caretakers often want the best for their children. Knowing more about the different types of mental and behavioral disorders that often affect youth can help families feel more empowered about seeking help.

What is a Mental Health Disorder?

It’s normal to experience changes in thoughts and behavior as we grow older or go through certain situations. But a mental health disorder is not just “going through a rough time”— it is a persistent change over several months or years, enough to cause distress and alarming changes in behavior and the ability to cope with life. 

A mental health disorder can even hamper the ability to complete simple day to day tasks, such as eating, bathing, and sleeping.

Mental health disorders in children can be hard to pinpoint, as children change so much as they develop and grow. Most mental health disorders are first defined as delays in normal developmental milestones and behaviors. As kids grow older, these issues can grow if left untreated.

Anxiety Disorders

It’s normal for kids to feel anxious from time to time—it can even be useful in some situations, as children learn to face their fears and get used to a new situation. But for some kids, anxiety can grow to a level where it seems to take over their entire lives.

Childhood anxiety disorders are divided into several types:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD);
  • Separation anxiety
  • Specific phobias, such as an extreme fear of animals
  • Social anxiety—having a hard time with social situations

Some common symptoms of anxiety in children include:

  • Worries or fears that begin to interfere with day to day life
  • Physical symptoms, like headaches or tummy aches, that don’t have a medical cause
  • Avoiding certain activities, places, or people
  • Trouble sleeping at night

Nearly 20 percent of children will experience anxiety at some point in their lives. Fortunately, kids who receive the support they need are better likely to develop the coping skills they need as they grow.

Depression and Mood Disorders

Many people see depression as something that only affects adults, but depression in youth is more common than people think. More than one in seven teens experience depression every year.

Being in a stressful situation, such as moving to a new town or losing a loved one (even a pet) can sometimes lead to depression. Bullying or having trouble fitting in at school can also be associated with depression. But often, depression has no cause.

The signs of depression can be the same or similar to anxiety, but can also include:

  • Constantly feeling or looking depressed, sad, tearful, or irritable
  • Not enjoying things they used to, such as favorite games or places
  • Changes in appetite and/or weight
  • Having trouble concentrating

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can be extremely harmful to growing children, and not just physically. An eating disorder can lead to or exacerbate low self-esteem, anxiety, and the way a child sees themselves.

Some common eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)

Some of the signs of an eating disorder include:

  • An extreme preoccupation with weight gain
  • Eating very little on purpose—”starving themselves”
  • Overeating, even when not hungry
  • “Purging” by making themselves throw up or using laxatives or diuretics
  • Avoiding most foods due to smell, texture, taste, or color of food

Kids who suffer from anorexia or bulimia often struggle with feelings of worthlessness, shame, and have trouble coping with stressful situations. It can also be harder for these kids to focus or regulate their emotions due to poor nutrition.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD)

Going through stressful situations is a part of life, and most children are able to recover quickly. But for some kids, going through a traumatic event can leave them with lingering effects that make it hard for them to “bounce back.”

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can happen after an extreme event, such as the death of a loved one, witnessing violence or abuse, or a particularly scary injury. Signs of PTSD in children include:

  • Reliving the event over and over in thought or in play
  • Getting upset when reminded of the event
  • Ongoing fear or sadness months after the event
  • Irritability and angry outbursts
  • Avoiding places, things or people that remind them of the event

The symptoms of PTSD can closely resemble symptoms of other conditions, such as anxiety or depression, so it can be hard to identify it as PTSD.

Treating Mental Health Disorders in Youth

Fortunately, treatment for mental health disorders has come a long way and continues to expand. Youth in particular tend to respond well to early treatment, and early intervention can teach them the skills they need to cope for the rest of their lives.

Some ways to treat mental health disorders in youth include:

  • Psychotherapy—talk therapy, behavioral therapy, and family counseling
  • Medication—stimulants, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, antipsychotics or mood stabilizers. 
    • Please note that medications are prescribed under the care of a psychiatrist. If you think you are in need of medications, please speak to your parent or trusted adult about seeking medical care. 
  • Learning as much as they can about the disorder
  • Learning about stress management and self-calming techniques

Our Help is Here campaign is dedicated to connecting High Desert youth to valuable mental health resources and services. Check out our Mental Health Directory to find national, state, and local resources.

If you believe you are experiencing any of the above symptoms related to behavioral health, please talk to a trusted adult. Always remember that you are not alone!

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Mental illnesses and behavioral disorders in youth: Common signs to look out for
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