Is Your Child Experiencing a Mental Illness?

Nearly one in five children is experiencing some sort of emotional or behavioral disorder. As a parent you may recognize that something with your child is not right. Difficulty can arise when you try to address these changes without having the necessary background, knowledge or experience to identify them and then to develop a strategy to deal with them.

Many parents wonder what they should do when their child begins having problems at school or with friends, becomes uncooperative or has inexplicable outbursts. These behaviors can leave parents feeling confused and unsure about what to do.

Perhaps the best thing to do first is to look for symptoms that indicate that your child is experiencing some form of distress. Although this may sound like a daunting task, you may be surprised at how easy it can be and how well equipped you already are, as a parent, to take this step.

The following warning signs may indicate a problem needing specialized attention. Be certain that these symptoms are not related to a recent stressful event such as a move, divorce, the loss of a loved one or care giver for example, but have developed for other reasons.

  • avoiding friends and family
  • hitting or bullying other children
  • acting out or rebelling against authority
  • drinking alcohol or using drugs
  • not doing the things he or she used to enjoy
  • worrying constantly
  • displaying frequent mood swings
  • obsessed with his or her weight
  • lacking energy or motivation
  • increased risk-taking behaviour
  • feeling very down
  • having more difficulty at school.
  • attempting to injure or cut him or herself..
  • experiencing intense emotions such as angry outbursts or extreme fear.
  • difficulty concentrating.
  • difficulty sleeping, or complaining of a lot of nightmares.
  • unusual physical complaints.
  • reduced concern with his or her weight, shape, or appearance.
  • eating significantly more or less than usual.

An easy way to track your child’s behavior is by printing this list and circling any of the symptoms you may notice. If they persist for a minimum of two weeks or more, this may be an indication that your child is indeed grappling with a serious mental or emotional crisis. If you suspect this might be the case you should take action as quickly as possible.

You may try something as simple as mentioning to your child that you have noticed a change in their behavior and simply ask them if there is something they are worried or anxious about or if something is bothering them. Of course, the way you approach this will vary according to the age of your child and the relationship you have with them. If your child is more comfortable speaking with one parent rather than another then it would probably be best for that parent to initiate the discussion. Don’t get frustrated if your child doesn’t immediately respond to your inquiries. If this is the case then make sure they know that you are there and ready to “listen” to them when they feel they want to share their concerns with you.

You may also want to reach out to your child’s school or teachers. 

  • Has there been any bullying occurring?
  • Has one of your child’s close friends left the school?
  • Is your child experiencing difficulties with any of his or her courses?
  • Are there any challenges your child faces in school that you are not aware of? (These could be academic, social, physical or a combination of these.)

Any one, or a combination of these, could be a trigger for changes in mood or behavior. You could also ask your child if there have been any changes at school that you don’t know about. If they suggest that there might be problems, but they don’t want to share them with you, you could suggest a visit to the school guidance counselor or even the principal or vice principal. This approach will depend on whether your child’s school has counselling resources and how comfortable your child might be speaking with an authority figure such as a school principal.

Don’t overlook the possibility that your child’s mood or behavior changes might be the result of a physical problem. A visit to your family doctor might uncover an actual physical trigger for these changes. If there doesn’t appear to be a physical problem ask your family physician if they have any treatment recommendations for the mood or behavior changes. These could include counselling, medication, new physical or other activities, diet changes or others.

An important thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to face this challenge alone. There are supports and resources available to parents and children in most communities. A little internet research will point you in the direction of many of these. You may also ask your school administration or social worker (if your school board offers this kind of support), primary care physician, minister or other faith leader, community organizations, your local library even family and friends – if you are comfortable approaching them about an issue like this.

Managing this kind of situation can be exhausting, stressful and frustrating. It  may get worse before it gets better. This is why it is important to take time for yourself. Make sure you are getting enough rest – including sleep – eating properly and getting exercise and fresh air. It is difficult, if not impossible, to care for your child if you are worn down, hungry and exhausted most of the time, so there is no need to feel guilty for taking time for yourself. In fact, it might be one of the most generous things you can do for your child. And this is true at times other than those where your children are dealing with mental or physical problems.

It’s important to pay attention to changes in your child’s behavior and get help in a timely manner. The majority of adulthood mental health problems can trace their roots to childhood issues that were not properly addressed at the time.