Mental illness in children: Know the signs

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Mental illness in children can be hard for parents to identify. As a result, many children who could benefit from treatment don't get the help they need. Understand the warning signs of mental illness in children and how you can help your child cope.

Why is it hard for parents to identify mental illness in children?

It's typically up to the adults in a child's life to identify whether the child has a mental health concern. Unfortunately, many parents don't know the signs and symptoms of mental illness in children. Even if you know the red flags, it can be difficult to distinguish signs of a problem from normal childhood behavior. You might reason that every child displays some of these signs at some point. Concerns about the stigma associated with mental illness, the use of certain medications and the cost of treatment might also prevent parents from seeking care for a child who has a suspected mental illness.

What mental health conditions affect children?

Children can experience a range of mental health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety disorders. Children who have anxiety disorders — such as obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia and generalized anxiety disorder — experience anxiety as a persistent problem that interferes with their daily activities.
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This condition typically includes a combination of issues, such as difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.
  • Autism. Autism is one of a group of serious developmental problems called autism spectrum disorders that appear in early childhood — usually before age 3. Though symptoms and severity vary, all autism disorders affect a child's ability to communicate and interact with others.
  • Eating disorders. Eating disorders — such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder — are serious conditions. Children can become so preoccupied with food and weight that they focus on little else.
  • Mood disorders. Mood disorders — such as depression and bipolar disorder — can cause a child to feel persistent feelings of sadness or extreme mood swings.
  • Schizophrenia. This chronic mental illness causes a child to lose touch with reality (psychosis).

What are the warning signs of mental illness in children?

Warning signs that your child might have a mental health condition include:

  • Mood changes. Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school.
  • Intense feelings. Be aware of feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason — sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing — or worries or fears intense enough to interfere with daily activities.
  • Behavior changes. This includes drastic changes in behavior or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behavior. Fighting frequently, using weapons or expressing a desire to badly hurt others also are warning signs.
  • Difficulty concentrating. Look for signs of trouble focusing or sitting still, both of which might lead to poor performance in school.
  • Unexplained weight loss. A sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives might indicate an eating disorder.
  • Physical harm. Sometimes a mental health condition leads to suicidal thoughts or actual attempts at self-harm or suicide.
  • Substance abuse. Some kids use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their feelings.
Feb. 25, 2012 See more In-depth