Recognizing Mental Illness in Children

Never before in American culture has the concept of “mental health” received the attention it receives today. Today’s young adults, in particular, carefully tend to their mental health by doing things like yoga, hiking, and self-care days.

But what does mental health care mean if you’re a parent? You have not only your health to tend to, but also your children’s.

You know what to do when your child has a fever, but what about if can’t get along with other kids? What if they can’t focus at school? What if they’re always irritable or fidgety?

You might wonder if your child is suffering from some sort of social or mental problem. You’d hate to think something might be “wrong as any parent would.

But you also wouldn’t ignore it if something actually was wrong. It might be scary to consider, but it’d be scarier for your child to face a problem (of any kind) on their own. 

Mental Illness Basics

As defined by the American Psychiatry Association, mental Illness “refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders — health conditions involving: Significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior; Distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”

It’s important to understand that mental illness is just that, illness. In the same way that your heart can be unhealthy, so can your brain. Just as if you had heart disease, a doctor would diagnose and help you treat it. Hopefully, it can be treated completely, or at least managed to avoid disruption of daily life.

Sadly, many children with mental health problems do not receive treatment. In 2016, of the over 7 million children and teens with mental illness in the US, half were not treated, as reported in a study by the University of Michigan. There are many reasons for this, but the one we’re addressing here is the obstacle of recognizing symptoms in children.

Proactive Mental Health Care

So, what can be done? Even if you have no reason to think there might be a problem, you certainly would not want your child to be part of that statistic. If you think there is a problem, how do you proceed?

1. Do research.

Knowledge is power! Luckily, there’s plenty of useful information that can shed light on otherwise confusing behavior. Here are a few fantastic, user-friendly sources:

Generally, such sources recommend that if you think your child may be facing mental illness, talk to their pediatrician, who might suggest seeing a specialist, such as a clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, or behavioral therapist.

Perhaps the most valuable knowledge to have is knowing the symptoms of mental illness. Your daughter can tell you her stomach hurts, but she probably can’t communicate that she’s experiencing mood swings. It’s up to parents to notice disruptive or unusual behavior, and understand its potential implications.

2. Gather information.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then talk to your village! Check in with teachers, nannies, and coaches. If you have a concern, ask others (mindfully, of course) who know your child well, as they may have valuable insight. If you speak to a specialist, they will want to know any and all details you can provide.

One potential roadblock to recognizing symptoms is that they may appear to be part of a child’s personality or may only appear in certain contexts.

For example, a parent may know her son to be shy and reserved. Obviously, shyness does not equate to mental illness. However, if his teacher reports that he doesn’t talk to classmates, isolates himself, and has no friends, clearly there’s cause for concern.  

You know your child best. You know what behavior is regular or irregular. You are in the best position to distinguish bad days from weeks of bad days. You, more than anyone else, can proactively oversee and cultivate your child’s mental health.

Should your child receive a diagnosis, you are the primary facilitator of their treatment plan. Yes, you might work with teachers, counselors, and doctors, but ultimately, the important decisions are your call.


Mental illness does not have to be a scary unknown. Odds are, your child could likely face it at some time or other in their life. Thankfully, mental illness is treatable, but only if the symptoms are recognized and diagnosed.

As a parent, you can foster mental wellness by learning about mental health and illness, and taking proactive steps to detect any issues.

By caring for your child’s mental health, you can teach them to do the same for themselves. For both the immediate care and long-term benefits, they will thank you.


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