Child and Adolescent Mental Health

Even under the best of circumstances, it can be hard to tell the difference between challenging behaviors and emotions that are consistent with typical child development and those that are cause for concern.

It is important to remember that many disorders like anxiety, attention deficit disorder and depression do occur during childhood.

In fact, many adults who seek treatment reflect back on how these disorders affected their childhood and wish that they had received help sooner.

In general, if a child’s behavior persists for a few weeks or longer, causes distress for the child or the child’s family, and interferes with functioning at school, at home, or with friends, then consider seeking help. If a child’s behavior is unsafe, or if a child talks about wanting to hurt him or herself or someone else, then seek help immediately.

A thorough evaluation can help determine if treatment is necessary, and which treatments may be most effective.
Early treatment can help address a child’s current difficulties and can also help prevent more serious problems in the future.

Young children may benefit from an evaluation and treatment if they:

  • Have frequent tantrums or are intensely irritable much of the time.
  • Often talk about fears or worries.
  • Complain about frequent stomachaches or headaches with no known medical cause.
  • Are in constant motion and cannot sit quietly (except when they are watching videos or playing video games).
  • Sleep too much or too little, have frequent nightmares, or seem sleepy during the day.
  • Are not interested in playing with other children or have difficulty making friends.
  • Struggle academically or have experienced a recent decline in grades.
  • Repeat actions or check things many times out of fear that something bad may happen.

Older children and adolescents may benefit from an evaluation if they:

  • Have lost interest in things that they used to enjoy.
  • Have low energy.
  • Sleep too much or too little, or seem sleepy throughout the day.
  • Are spending more and more time alone and avoid social activities with friends or family.
  • Fear gaining weight, or diet or exercise obsessively.
  • Engage in self-harm behaviors (e.g. cutting or burning their skin)
  • Smoke, drink, or use drugs.
  • Engage in risky or destructive behavior alone or with friends.
  • Have thoughts of suicide.
  • Have periods of highly elevated energy and activity and require much less sleep than usual.
  • Say that they think someone is trying to control their mind or that they hear things that other people cannot hear.

An evaluation by a mental health professional can help clarify problems that may be underlying a child’s behavior and provide reassurance or recommendations for next steps.

It provides an opportunity to learn about a child’s strengths and weaknesses and determine which interventions might be most helpful.

National Institute of Mental Health (2020). Child and Adolescent Mental Health. Retrieved February 10, 2020.

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