Because parents are the first in line to help their children, it is important for them to be aware of the warning signs for possible issues. And those differ, depending upon the age of the child.
“For younger children you may see developmental issues, such as problems with toilet training, speech, sleeping, and eating,” explains Amy Henke, Ph.D., Pediatric Psychologist at Children Hospital and LSU-HSC. “As the child gets older, you may run into more behavior problems. How are they getting along socially? Problems in school or with social interaction. In adolescents, it’s more common for kids and parents both to become concerned about depression or anxiety.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common mental health issues within the past year among children ages 3-17 were: Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder at 6.8 percent; behavioral or conduct problems at 3.5 percent; anxiety at 3 percent; and depression at 2.1 percent.
“Depression can be different in kids; instead of being sad, they can seem really irritable,” Dr. Henke says. “If they become hard to talk to, or if you see changes in friends and how much time they want to hang out with friends, or they are getting into fights, that is common for mood disorders like depression.”
For anxiety, a common sign is being excessively afraid. “You can look [signs like] being afraid to go to school, being nervous in social situations where they don’t want to spend time with friends or avoid being in social situations all together,” Dr. Henke explains.
When—and how—to seek help
Barbara LeBlanc, director of the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital, says that many parents come to her to learn when to seek help for their children.
“We look for when a child’s symptoms or behaviors are really interfering with their ability to function at school or with life,” she says.
Some things LeBlanc suggests you ask yourself to help you get a handle of the seriousness of the situation are: How long has it lasted? Is it appropriate for the child’s age? Is it interfering with the child’s life and family life?
The first step to treating the problem is to find out what might be causing it. According to Stephen W. Hales, M.D., a pediatrician at Hales Pediatrics in Uptown, many problems stem from some kind of distress or disruption in a child’s life.
“If a child is experiencing distress, changes in family, or changes in the world around them, maybe divorce or a new sibling, or difficulty with peers in school, a change to a new school, these are all the sorts of things that are very common” as causes of and triggers for mental disorders, Dr. Hales says.
A logical next step is for parents to bring up their concerns with their pediatrician or family doctor; they know the child and the family best and can evaluate and make a referral if needed.
“A common question I get as a pediatrician is, ‘My child is acting out more and being more aggressive, not listening and having more destructive behaviors that weren’t there before. What do I do?’ And I ask them to step back and wonder if there isn’t a reason behind that behavior,” Dr. Hales says. “A child who hasn’t been pushing limits and starts doing that, those are the types of conversations that I encourage parents to take to their pediatrician.”
The first thing Dr. Hales suggests to help a child stay balanced is to have consistency at home. “I think that helping home to be a safe and consistent place is an essential part in helping children stay in a good emotional balance. If home isn’t consistent, then they don’t have a good platform to stand on as they explore the world,” Dr. Hales says.
Dr. Henke agrees that consistency is important. “Set a routine. Set guidelines for them to follow. Set very clear expectations and consistency. Kids thrive on being able to predict their environment and know what people are expecting of them,” Dr. Henke says.
Another valuable yet simple thing parents can do to help is give their kids the opportunity to talk.
“Just listen to your child. See what they have to say. Be there and listen, put in some time with your kid in order to decide if they need to go see someone,” Dr. Henke says.
“Parents have to find just the right time and just enough empty space in a conversation to let a child in, by saying ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been very upset about things. Help me understand that,’” says Dr. Hales. “In the moment they are likely to deny any issue, but at a quiet time later, there is an open door now, and out comes tumbling the story.”
If symptoms persist, he recommends parents take their child to a psychologist for a diagnosis and treatment.
Before scheduling that appointment, Dr. Henke advises parents to do their research. “Make sure they are licensed and they are someone who has experience working with children and families,” she says.
It’s also important to be open to talk with the psychologist or psychiatrist about everything. “Provide a full and thorough history of your concerns and let them talk to you as a parent and then talk to the child and then you can come up with a treatment plan as they see fit,” Dr. Henke says.
There are many different treatment options—including therapy and medication or a combination of both—and every child’s situation is different. With the appropriate treatment, many children will recover fully from their mental disorder, or at least be able to control their symptoms.
by Kristen Himmelberg