How to tell the difference between normal emotions and more serious child mental health symptoms in children and teens.
Andrea Peltier, LCSW
Parents often feel alone and not good enough with the tough jobs they have to do. Whether it is coping with the challenging times we are currently facing or dealing with past trauma, abuse, neglect, divorce, loss, or other hardships. Children and teens can also face significant struggles in their lives and sometimes have extreme difficulty coping with them. Just like adults, they may begin to suffer from mental health problems. These problems can begin to emerge even from a young age.
When a child is younger, their behaviors may seem more manageable. But as they age, things may become more out of control or difficult to manage. Their emotions and behaviors may begin to have a negative impact on their relationships with family and friends. They might have trouble functioning within the community or at school. Eventually, the issues they are struggling with may begin to affect their ability to gain independence and hold a job or participate in other social activities.
While child mental health treatment and counseling is becoming more accessible, it is still difficult for parents, caregivers, and teachers to know when to take the first steps and where to go for help. It is often helpful to hear some concrete ways to know whether your child or teen’s moods or behaviors could be more serious and are cause to get outside support.
Below are five examples and explanations that will help you know the difference between typical concerns and symptoms of a real mental health problem.
If your child becomes upset when things don’t go their way, cries easily, regularly gets down on themselves, displays negative thought patterns, or blames others for their problems you may worry that your child is depressed. These characteristics not accompanied by any other serious trauma and for a child under 10 are typically normal at times. However, if your child cries every day and they can’t resume back to typical functioning afterwards, this may be more of a concern.
If in addition to a sad or depressed mood your child is also irritable more often than not, is overeating or has no appetite, or if they have insomnia or are over sleeping — this may be a sign of a more significant issue. If your child also displays low to no energy, has difficulty concentrating or with making decisions, and expresses feelings of hopelessness, your child may be suffering from depression.
Some other things to watch for are more significant behavior change, such as: lack of interest in things they used to enjoy, isolation, and lack of interest in playing with friends or socializing as they once did and especially talk of wanting to be dead or threats of killing themselves. If your child has only had these symptoms within the context of the loss of a loved one, they may only need help working through the grieving process. Loss of a loved one does not only occur when someone dies but may occur as a result of a move, loss of a pet, or while parents are going through a separation or divorce. If the symptoms above have gradually increased over time or are causing your child behavioral changes, withdrawal and talk of suicide, you must take it seriously and seek out help immediately.
If your child argues with you, talks back, is often snippy and doesn’t always listen to you, try and take comfort in knowing that these are normal kid behaviors. Children are constantly testing our limits to see what they can get away with. However, if your child’s outbursts are extreme overreactions for the situation, or turn into physical aggression or destruction of property after the age of 7, you may need to seek additional help. If these verbal or physical outbursts occur more days than not and have persisted for one year, this may be a sign of a more serious problem.
If your child only displays these behaviors at home and never anywhere else, you may benefit from seeking support for yourself and considering new or different strategies for discipline, rewards, incentives, etc. All children are different and what works for one child, doesn’t necessarily work for another. Parents should also remember the importance of taking care of their own mental well-being and stress levels. This will serve as a health model for your child. You’ll also have more energy and creative solutions to deal with your child’s most challenging of behaviors.
If your child becomes stressed before returning back to school in the fall, before a sleepover or a test, or when meeting someone new, your child is likely experiencing normal worry and anxiety. These are emotions that we all experience throughout life. But if your child’s regular daily functioning is impacted negatively by their worrying more days than not throughout a week, this may be cause for more concern.
If a child is having difficulty sleeping, seems on-edge, is tense or uneasy and becoming irritable more often, they may be dealing with more serious anxious symptoms. With that, therapy has proven to be very effective in helping children deal with anxiety. This intense worry would usually be present for more than six months and not within the context of a recent traumatic experience or loss.
Many parents and caregivers have concerns about a child’s arguing and defiance. It would be so much easier if their child would respond when called upon and do what is asked of them, without getting into an argument and yelling for 10 minutes over a simple task. Unfortunately, not listening is often a typical part of a child’s natural development.
Consider yourself lucky if your child rarely argues and usually listens! There is a difference, though, if your child’s argument or defiance also includes being vindictive, spiteful, and blaming of others regularly. A negative, irritable mood usually also accompanies these behaviors. Additionally, this would typically not be present until 5 years of age or older.
Keep in mind that at times children who are depressed may present with irritability as well. However, they may not necessarily present with aggression or to these extremes. It isn’t uncommon that the symptoms only present at home, however, would be considered more severe if they are displayed in other settings, such as daycare, school, or in social or job settings.
If your child seems to not hear you when you are talking, your child is not alone. However, not listening or responding back to you sometimes does not mean that your child has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. It likely means that your child is engaged in an activity and is sort of tuned out while in the activity. Be open with your child that you expect them to at least acknowledge you and how soon you expect them to do what is asked. Parents and caregivers should also keep in mind that kids don’t have the same priorities or timeline as adults, so picking up those dirty socks may not be as high on their priority list as it may be on yours.
However, if a child displays inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive symptoms prior to the age of 12 years old and these symptoms have persisted for more than 6 months, your child may be dealing with ADHD. If your child’s lack of listening, problems with organization, and/or hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity is negatively impacting their functioning at home and their grades in school, they may have characteristics of ADHD. If your child often makes careless mistakes with work, lacks attention to details, has difficulty with sustained attention to tasks, or seems to be bouncing off the walls more often than not, your child may be struggling with more severe symptoms that need attention.
When and Where to Get Help
There are several factors to consider when determining whether a child or adolescent is truly suffering from a mental health disorder. Some of these factors are: age, culture, gender, history, trauma, genetics, and even societal influences. Many people have faced challenges with mental illness for many years and were unaware of what was happening to them. Many have felt alone, embarrassed or in disbelief that counseling or other outside interventions would help. Some are nervous to talk about their struggles, while others are concerned about the financial implications.
There is good news, though! Whether you or your child have ever received an actual mental health diagnosis or not, you can always seek out counseling. Therapists get into the field because they care about people and they have significant empathy for the challenging situations that occur in life. They are specifically available to give anyone an outlet to cope, talk, heal and process difficult times that have caused increased stress. Many insurance companies have eased restrictions and are allowing much better coverage for counseling services. With that, much of the stigma surrounding mental health is also decreasing, especially surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. Individuals, businesses and insurance companies alike are recognizing the toll that these difficult times are taking on us all.
It is important for parents to allow their child to tell them how they feel and do their best to empathize with them, even if they don’t feel the same way. The more that a parent can provide their child a listening ear without criticizing, the more likely their child will open up about what feelings they may be experiencing. If you are concerned that your child’s symptoms may be more severe, let your child know you are worried about them and want to do what you can to help them, because the situations that have been occurring seem to be unpleasant for the child but also for you and others around.
Resources Through Family Services
In Brown County the Crisis Center is available 24/7 to help support you and your child in a time of crisis and you can reach them at (920) 436-8888. There are other crisis lines available throughout the state and in your own local counties. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also always available at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.
If you have already had your child in counseling but intense disruption still continues, Family Services’ Day Treatment may be the right next step for your child. Call us at (920) 433-3372 ext. 100 for more information or to enroll.