As a parent, the last thing you want to think about is your child dealing with mental illness. Yet, children are just as vulnerable to mental problems, such as depression, as adults. Sadly, many parents overlook the earliest signs of mental illness due to a lack of awareness, and this delay in care can affect a child’s recovery. Although the signs of mental illness can vary according to a child’s age and maturity level, it is important to seek help from a professional if you notice any of these occurring on a regular basis.
Behavior Problems at School or Daycare
Children often act out their problems, which means parents frequently receive negative behavior reports from their child’s teachers when something is wrong. For some children, this could involve violent, angry outbursts, or you could receive feedback that your child is inattentive or refuses to cooperate. Either way, avoid assuming that negative behavior is just your child breaking the rules. It could be an underlying mental illness showing itself through their actions.
At night, repressed emotions often rise to the surface. The occasional nightmare is normal for children. However, frequent nightmares accompanied by screaming and night waking could signal that something more is happening. Nightmares are especially common among children that have experienced a severe trauma or who struggle with anxiety. Teenagers, however, may not talk about their nightmares. Instead, they may put off sleep for as long as possible or seem tired upon waking.
Many types of mental illness cause extreme anxiety that could be expressed by your child as fears. While it is normal for a child to have a mild fear of things such as thunder, you may need to worry if their fears cannot be calmed with reassuring words or a soothing touch. For example, a child who is terrified of speaking to others may be struggling with social anxiety.
Changes in Eating Habits
Sudden weight gain or loss is a common symptom of mental illness. Young children may suddenly become picky or slow eaters. Children of all ages may engage in frequent snacking or binge eating. Teenagers who have more control over their food may also hide their changing eating habits, yet you may see fluctuations in their weight. You may also notice symptoms of eating disorders in older kids such as hoarding food or purging after meals.
Loss of Interest in Favorite Activities
Children tend to go through different hobbies and friends as their personality develops. However, most children have at least one interest that they remain passionate about throughout their childhood. If your child suddenly stops playing their favorite sport or refuses to spend time with their friends, then they may be struggling mentally.
Disturbing Drawings or Writings
Children with mental illness are often creative, and they will use their preferred craft to express feelings that they may not be able to put into words. At the preschool level, this may involve heavy, angry scribbles using harsh colors. Older kids and teens may draw actual depictions of violent images, or they may write stories with upsetting plots. Talk to your children about the things they create, and ask open-ended questions to find out what is on their mind.
When a child has a mental illness, they rely upon their parents and other trusted adults to find out what is wrong. Although many of the signs are subtle, they do tend to get worse as time goes on. Fortunately, acting quickly at the first sign of mental illness is the best way to ensure your child gets the help they need to enjoy positive mental wellbeing.