No parent wants to witness their child suffering—for any reason. But mental illness can be exponentially more difficult to watch, because you can’t see or comprehend the source, as you could with a fever, for instance.
Plus, it’s tough to tell if your little one is on the mend or still suffering in silence.
Mental disorders among teens and young adults have been rising steadily for the past decade. The reasons could be environmental (i.e., family, school, and social media), situational (i.e., a traumatic event), physical (i.e., hormones and genetics), or a combination of these. While science tries to pinpoint the causes, consider these sobering statistics:
Now some good news: Early detection and intervention can save years of hassle and heartbreak. So it’s important that parents know how to recognize the often-stealthy signs of mental illness.
Where to begin? Right here.
One of the biggest challenges for parents: Recognizing the difference between a psychological issue and the normal developmental changes that happen during these formative years, says Mark A. Stein, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Washington and director of the Pearl Clinic/ADHD and Related Disorders Program at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Parents often either over-interpret a supposed sign and conclude there’s a problem, or dismiss a change in behavior as “a bad week.”
To be a good mental-health first responder for your child, Dr. Stein suggests looking at his or her behavior in three areas: home, school, and social groups. Consider the following to help you determine whether you should seek help:
If your child is having issues in any of these areas, seek help. This is especially true if their behavior doesn’t “match” their development level. For example, it’s normal for a 3-year-old to have frequent tantrums, but not an 11-year-old.
Psychological and psychiatric problems can largely be divided into two areas, says Dr. Stein: externalizing or internalizing.
As you might guess, externalized behavior problems are easier to spot, because signs include things you can see: behavioral changes, fighting, hyperactivity, destructive behavior. Internalized problems are often emotional (such as depression) and thus much more difficult to spot.
Here are six symptoms to watch for:
Here's how talk to your child about feelings:
“There’s been a marked increase in suicide attempts and suicides among children and youth,” says Dr. Stein.
In fact, the suicide rate among kids younger than 15 nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017 to 1.34 per 100,000 people, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The biggest red flag for parents: changes in mood or behavior, such as becoming increasingly isolated and withdrawn, or expressing feelings of hopelessness. Kids’ behavior changes like the weather, but watch for drastic shifts—like a calm kid suddenly getting into fights or being unusually disruptive at school. If the behavior includes the use of or a preoccupation with weapons, or any threat of harm to themselves or others, call your doctor right away. Likewise, if you are concerned that your child may harm themselves, call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately, says Dr. Stein.
“Be even more aware if you know your child is prone to impulsivity,” Dr. Stein says. In addition, watch carefully if there have been publicized cases of suicide near you, as it’s not uncommon for young people contemplating self-harm to be pushed closer when they hear of other cases.
If you believe your child is struggling with anxiety, depression, or another psychological issue, make an appointment with your pediatrician or family doctor first, says Dr. Stein.
“This is someone who knows your child, has a sense of them over time, and also knows your family,” he says.
Your doctor will help you decide if you should seek an evaluation from a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or neurodevelopment expert.
“A diagnostic evaluation is important [for] understanding how to treat any psychiatric disorder,” says Dr. Stein. “The first step in treatment is a diagnostic evaluation, which should identify appropriate, personalized targets for treatment and an evaluation strategy. We’re constantly striving to develop more precise ways of diagnosing individuals to really guide our treatment.”
Dealing with a child who may have a mental illness is challenging, to be sure, but there are good options for both therapy and medication.
And remember: Seeking help sooner rather than later is more likely to lead to a successful outcome for your child and your family.