According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental disorders among children are described as “serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave or handle their emotions, causing distress and problems getting through the day.” Media outlets have sounded the alarm that childhood mental disorders are on the rise, but families often still struggle to know what signs to watch for, and how to help a child who might be experiencing a mental health issue.
The term “mental disorder” encompasses a wide range of manifestations, including diagnoses of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety, and depression. The CDC uses surveys, like the National Survey of Children’s Health, to understand the prevalence of mental disorders among children. According to the CDC, one in six children aged 2-8 years, has a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.
ADHD, behavior problems, anxiety, and depression are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children; and rates and types of mental disorders tend to vary by age. Behavior problems are more common among children aged 6-11 years, and diagnoses of depression and anxiety increase with children’s age.
Early diagnosis can make a real difference in treatment outcomes. I spoke with researcher, and psychiatrist, Jeffrey D. Shahidullah, PhD, to learn what advice he would give to families seeking help. Dr. Shahidullah splits his time between two roles: assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School, where he conducts research on childhood mental health, and pediatric psychologist with the Texas Child Study Center at Dell Children’s Medical Center, where he works with children of all ages.
“Mental health issues like anxiety and depression are becoming more prevalent than ever before,” said Dr. Shahidullah. He believes that there are several factors contributing towards this increase: greater school workloads, overloaded extracurricular calendars, concerns about college, social pressures, and technology, including the use of social media.
Dr. Shahidullah especially sees the effects of technology and social media on today’s adolescents. With social media, there is a “constant upward comparison where you’re comparing yourself to the best of other people’s lives. Companies are also financially invested in getting one more click out of young people,” commented Dr. Shahidullah. “If you have a child with learning, attention, or chronic health issues, then the effects of stress and social media pressures can be heightened.”
What are warning signs that indicate that a child may be struggling and could benefit from intervention? In general, if a child’s behavior or mood persists for a few weeks or longer, causes distress for the child or family, and affects the daily school, home or social life, it is worth seeking help. If the child is engaging in unsafe behavior, or if he or she talks about self-harm or harming others, then seek help immediately.
A good first step is to consult your child’s pediatrician. Be prepared to describe the worrisome behavior. It may also be helpful to talk with your child’s teacher in advance, so that you can share the teacher’s observations. It can sometimes be hard to tell if challenging behaviors and emotions are part of typical child development, or if they are actually problematic. It is better to err on the side of caution, and your pediatrician should welcome the opportunity to discuss your concerns with you.
If warranted, the pediatrician can make a recommendation for a behavioral health provider, such as a psychologist, who has experience in working with children. Dr. Shahidullah points out that “working with a psychologist can be extremely helpful, as families often need support in relating to their environments in new and different ways.” Treatment can include medication, therapy, or a combination of the two.
There are things that parents can do to protect their children from excessive emotional and mental stress:
- Ensure that children get adequate rest and avoid overscheduling extracurriculars.
- Set healthy technology limits. Screens and phones should be put away at least an hour before bedtime and should not be kept in children’s rooms.
- Make a practice of having regular, open and honest conversations, allowing your child to discuss issues without fear of punishment.
- Schedule family fun time. Regularly connecting with parents and siblings in a light-hearted way helps with family bonding and can reduce stress for all family members.
- Connect over family dinner as often as possible. Make mealtime a time for sharing ideas and easy conversation, not for correction.
- Reduce achievement pressure. Instead of asking about grades or scores, ask about the process. “What meaning did you get from this? Are you enjoying this activity?”
Parents are their children’s best mental health advocates. If you suspect that your child is struggling, seek help. There are resources available to help the entire family, and the sooner your child gets help, the sooner they can begin on a path to health and wellness.
Alison Bogle is an Austin-based freelance writer and other of three.