Recognizing the signs: Children and mental health

Last Modified: 5/14/2022

children mental health

With many still feeling the effects of the pandemic, mental health issues are at an all-time high. Sadly, mental health disorders in young children and adolescents are more common than people realize, and many aren’t receiving the help they need. Rachel Lilly, PhD, Park Center, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute, offers a few sound strategies for spotting the signs and symptoms so that parents can intervene as quickly as possible.

At what age are children affected by mental health issues?

As a psychologist, I'm seeing kids as young as two and three who have been affected all the way up to late teens and as old as 18 or 19. In October of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency on childhood and adolescent mental health. We’ve also seen increased suicidal ideation behaviors and a general need for mental health services across the childhood age spectrum. Unfortunately, the pandemic has taken a toll on these children, experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime event that no one should have to go through in their childhood.

How can parents, caregivers and educators recognize the signs or symptoms of mental health distress?

First and foremost, it’s important to look for any changes in mood or behavior. For example, once outgoing and active, children may become more withdrawn. Teenagers might stay in their room more or sleep longer (beyond what’s typical for them). Younger kids may act out more by being disruptive and more defiant or complain that their stomach hurts because that’s how their anxiety is manifesting.

Do technology and social media hinder a child’s mental health?

You know your child best, but I’m a huge advocate of everything in moderation with appropriate levels of monitoring and supervision. Unlimited reign of technology 24/7 isn’t healthy and doesn’t give children’s brains time to turn off. They need to be a little bored, get creative, and explore on their own.

Should medication be considered for a child experiencing mental health issues?

I want to clarify that I am a psychologist and not a psychiatrist, so I would not be the one to prescribe any medication. With that said, if you have questions about your child’s mental health and whether treatment, therapy and/or medication are the right fit, please consult with your child’s pediatrician or provider first. They are a great resource and a wonderful place to start.

Should caregivers be worried about their child becoming dependent on prescribed medications?

There’s a lot of research and data showing the opposite to be true. If we don’t meet a child’s mental and emotional needs when they’re young, they may self-medicate when they’re older. But, if we’re able to address any mental health issues with the guidance of a physician and the support of a psychologist, therapist, or provider, then we are less likely to see instances occurring later in life.

How can parents or caregivers broach the subject of mental health with their children?

It sounds scarier than it is, I promise. You just have to talk to them. It doesn’t need to be a formal discussion. Car rides are a great way to start the conversation. Keep the lines of communication open; then, as you’re sitting side by side, looking out the window, ask, “How was your day?” Then, the really important piece of the puzzle is to listen. This can be an extremely challenging step for parents or caregivers because we’re advice-givers, and we want our children to be happy and successful. But sometimes, all they need is for you to listen and validate their thoughts and feelings. I encourage parents to say phrases like, “What can I do?” or “What do you need from me?” rather than immediately jumping into problem-solving and giving advice. Also, try not to use close-ended questions when speaking with your child. Instead, try asking an open-ended question like, “What was one thing that went well for you today?” It will require them to elaborate on their day while limiting the obligatory one-word answers.

Where else can families turn for help?

Your pediatrician, family physician or primary care provider are all great places to start. In addition to that, you could also call the number on the back of your insurance card. Typically, they can tell you who’s in your network and who would be able to take your insurance. Other knowledgeable resources include local therapists and teachers, guidance counselors, and school personnel. They usually have a good grasp of how your child is behaving at school and with peers.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, depression or considering suicide, please contact the Behavioral Health Helpline at 260-373-7500 or 800-284-8439. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or call 911.

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