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Mental health problems in children and early adolescence

The idea that your child may be suffering from a mental problem can be a very daunting thought. However, it is important to not panic, there is an increasing amount of support for, and understanding of mental health problems in the younger age groups. This page aims to help you decide your next steps in dealing with a potential mental health concern in your child. We will also highlight some key factors to look out for.

Talk to your child and to a medical professional

If you feel your child is suffering from a disorder then it would be best to at first talk to your child to find out more information about what is troubling them. Children can sometimes express their emotions differently to adults and as such something that you may be interpreting as a mental health problem may in fact not fall into this category. If you speak to your child and you still feel there is a need to be concerned then there are two main points of contact you will need to establish. The first is a contact in the medical field, your medical practitioner. Booking an appointment for you and your child will allow you to discuss the matter with your medical practitioner and to receive their opinion and, if needed, their referral onto a specialist. You may also find it useful to book a session with your medical practitioner without your child being present so you can discuss the more technical aspects of treatment. If your medical practitioner agrees that your child is suffering from a disorder then they will likely refer you to a local children's services team, with psychological specialists that will be able to assist you. A psychiatrist will also be involved and may suggest the need for medication. However, as a general rule, medication is often not the first line treatment for many disorders in children. It may be the case that medication is required, if so this will be discussed with you in depth by the child psychiatrist so you are fully aware of the potential side effects. Do not feel embarrassed to ask questions when it comes to the use of medication for your child, a good psychiatrist will be happy to discuss your concerns with you as they will be aware of what a difficult time this will be for you.

Contact your child’s school

The second main point of contact that you would benefit from establishing is with a member of your child’s school. Different schools will have different departments and procedures but it would be a good idea to establish a relationship with your child’s teacher, head teacher and counsellor (if the school has one). These members of your child’s school will be vital in the monitoring of your child’s behaviour. A young child’s teacher is likely to be seeing your child for over five hours in a day and so will hopefully be able to highlight any mood or behaviour changes that they have observed. This may help you to decipher if a disorder is present or to monitor treatment progress. It will be up to you to decide how much information you choose to share with your child’s school. This will depend on the legal requirements of your area and how you personally feel about sharing this information. It may be a good idea to discuss this with your child’s therapy team. Informing the school is also important as it may be the case that your child will need to miss some school lessons to attend treatment. If the school is aware of the reason for these absences they should be able to work with you to make this process easier and to ensure that your child does not fall behind. Some schools may have a special needs team or teaching assistant who will be able to assist your child’s needs when they are at school. This may be through assisting them within the classroom setting, or providing more one-on-one teaching in a more subdued environment. It will also be important to discuss what services are available to you.

Try to maintain a ‘normal’ schedule

As much as it is possible to do so it would be advised to try and ensure that your child’s everyday life is still progressing as normal to try to limit disruption. There may need to be some changes but it is important to remember they are a child, not a diagnosis. It is understandable that you will be extra vigilant and may wish to be more protective of them when they have been given a diagnosis, but where it is possible and safe then you would be encouraged to let them continue their lives. Isolation can be a big problem in mental health illness so trying to maintain their established friendships will be important. You will also need to be mindful of the way you interact with your child. It is understandable that a number of symptoms of a mental health illness will be frustrating and may make you angry. It is important to try and not focus that anger on the child if it is a symptom that is out of their control. This is especially important if the child is making a marked effort to improve their symptoms.

Potential conditions and the signs to look out for

Unfortunately there are a vast number of mental health conditions that can affect children, with the onset of many conditions actually starting in childhood. Children can commonly be affected by anxiety disorder, eating disorders, depression, attention disorders, as well as many others. It can also be fairly difficult for a parent to identify problem behaviours and distinguishing these from normal childlike behaviour. There are a number of signs to look out for to help you identify if your child is suffering from a mental health condition.

Mood changes can be a big indicator of a mental health problem. If a child has started to appear depressed and withdrawn for two or more weeks, or if they are having mood swings that are impacting their day to day living then it may be helpful to schedule an assessment for your child. If your child is also feeling overwhelmed or experiencing intense emotions then this too may be cause for an assessment. Behaviour changes are also a noticeable indicator of potential problems. If a child has started to isolate themselves from group activities, or if they have started to be involved in more fights and aggressive behaviours then this should be looked in to. A sudden decrease in performance at school may highlight a problem with concentration which can link to a number of mental health concerns.

If a child is being secretive and secluded then this may also be a tool to conceal other problem behaviours such as self-harming or substance abuse and this should be carefully monitored. Adolescents are inclined to want their own space but if this is out of the ordinary or is matching up with other changes in behaviour then we would advise this is closely monitored or discussed. Adolescents are also likely to have different eating patterns to others in the family. However, if you notice a sudden unexplained weight loss, or if you feel your child is being obsessional with food then this could be a symptom of a mental health problem.

As a carer remember to look after yourself

Ultimately, dealing with mental health problems in your children is going to be a trying time for the whole family emotionally but there is the support and resources out there to help your child make a full recovery. During this time it is also important to remember to look after your own wellbeing and to access your own support if you feel you need it. You may benefit from attending appointments with a counsellor to discuss the difficulties associated with caring for a minor with mental health problems and to further understand your child’s condition. Family and friends can also be a great support network for you, they may be able to help you in certain aspects of your child’s care, or they may be able to lend a sympathetic ear when you need to talk through what you are experiencing. Sometimes, as much as they may try, friends and family may not be able to fully understand what you are going through as they are not in your position. Luckily there are many support groups, both in person and online, for families and carers of those suffering with mental health conditions. People in these groups will appreciate what you feel and will be able to show you that you are not alone.

Some useful contact numbers for parents

UK – YoungMinds is the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people. Parent helpline: 0808 802 5544.

USA – Boys Town National Hotline is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and is staffed by specially trained Boys Town counselors. It is accredited by the American Association of Suicidiology (AAS). Spanish-speaking counselors and translation services representing more than 140 languages are available, along with a TDD line (1-800-448-1833), that allows counselors to communicate with speech-impaired and deaf callers.

Australia – Kids Helpline is a portal for children, young people and parents/carers. Tel: 1800551800.

New Zealand – Youth Line works with young people, their families and those supporting young people. Tel: 0800 37 66 33

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