Understanding Children’s Mental Health

Written by on May 2, 2022

There is something to be said about placing a Band-Aid over your child’s knee when they fall down. Physical injuries are seen rather easily, allowing you as a parent the opportunity to make it all better. But what about mental health pitfalls? Mental health is just as important as physical health, however, it is much harder to see. 

According to the World Health Organization, as many as one in six U.S. children ages 6-17 has a treatable mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety problems, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Half of all mental health conditions start at 14 years of age but most cases are undetected and untreated. The consequences of not addressing adolescent mental health conditions extend to adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health and limiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults” (FIC, nd).

Because these disorders are harder to detect, understanding your child’s mental health signs, and symptoms and learning how to help them is crucial for parents.

Understanding Anxiety Disorders

There are several anxiety disorders that are found under the umbrella term of anxiety. Learning the differences between each can be helpful in understanding some of the changes your child may be experiencing.

Common types of anxiety disorders are:
Panic Disorders are characterized by unpredictable panic attacks and an intense fear of future attacks. Common symptoms are heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, and anxiety. These symptoms are often confused with those of a heart attack. 

Specific Phobias Intense fear reaction to a specific object or situation (such as spiders, dogs, or heights) that often leads to avoidance behavior. The level of fear is usually inappropriate to the situation. 

Social Phobia Extreme anxiety about being judged by others or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or ridicule and may lead to avoidance behavior. 

Separation Anxiety Disorder Intense anxiety is associated with being away from caregivers and results in youth clinging to parents or refusing to do daily activities such as going to school or sleepovers.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Individuals are plagued by persistent, recurring thoughts (obsessions) and engage in compulsive ritualistic behaviors in order to reduce the anxiety associated with these obsessions. (e.g. constant hand washing). 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) PTSD can follow an exposure to a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, sexual or physical assault, or witnessing the death of a loved one. Three main symptoms are reliving a traumatic event, avoidance behaviors and emotional numbing, and physiological problems such as difficulty sleeping, irritability, or poor concentration. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) Experiencing six months or more of persistent, irrational, and extreme worry about many different things, causing insomnia, headaches, and irritability. 

How it affects my child Children and adolescents with anxiety are capable of leading healthy, successful lives. If anxiety is left undiagnosed, youth may fail in school, experience an increase in family stress and disruption and have problems making or keeping friends. To avoid these harmful consequences, early identification and treatment are essential. (Children’s Mental Health Matters, 2021.)

Understanding Depression

Often children going through puberty or the pressures of school can exhibit symptoms of depression. But when is it time to be a bit more concerned and intervene? When symptoms of depression last longer than two weeks and interfere with socializing, school functions, and schoolwork, parents should express concern by talking with their child. 

If one or more of these signs of depression persist, parents should seek help 

  • Frequent sadness, tearfulness, crying 
  • Decreased interest in activities; or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities 
  • Hopelessness 
  • Persistent boredom; low energy 
  • Social isolation, poor communication 
  • Low self-esteem and guilt 
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure 
  • Increased irritability, anger, or hostility 
  • Difficulty with relationships 
  • Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school 
  • Poor concentration 
  • A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns 
  • Talk of, or efforts to run away from home 
  • Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self-destructive behavior
    (Children’s Mental Health Matters, 2021).

Recognizing these signs of depression can help you determine when your child may need professional help.

Understanding ADHD

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyper-activity Disorder, affects 3-7% of children and can last well into adulthood. Often, children go undetected because the symptoms of ADHD can be brushed off as, “just a little hyper” or, “has a tough time sitting still”. But ADHD is much more than that. 

The three most common forms of ADHD include:

  • ADHD Combined Type (Classic ADHD) – trouble with inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity • ADHD Predominantly Inattentive Type – trouble with attention, sluggish; difficult to identify 
  • ADHD Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type – trouble with impulsivity and hyperactivity; occurs more often in younger children

Additionally, around two-thirds of all children with ADHD have another underlying condition such as learning problems (Children’s Mental Health Matters, 2021).

Detecting the symptoms of ADHD early on can improve school work and educational success, sticking to routines at home, learning how to behave appropriately in public settings, socialization, and developmental success.

Understanding When To Seek Help
All children experience difficulty with emotions such as anger or sadness, but when is it time to get them some help? Some questions to ask yourself after careful observation include:

  • How long has the behavior or emotion been going on: days, weeks, or months? 
  • How frequently does the behavior or emotion occur: several times a day, once a day, once a week? 
  • How intense is the behavior: annoying, upsetting, or very disruptive?
  • Has there been a traumatic event in the child’s life, such as a death, accident, illness, or changes with the family?

These questions can help you determine what is “normal” for your child and when it is time to seek professional help for a mental health disorder. You know your child best, but also know that it’s perfectly okay to need some help. Your child’s mental health and well-being are incredibly important in the developmental process leading into adulthood. Learning when to intervene is crucial in the prevention of sexual abuse, eating disorders, early pregnancy, risky behaviors, bullying and cyber-bullying, and drug and alcohol abuse. If you think your child’s mental health may be at risk for ADHD, Anxiety Disorders, or Depression, we encourage you to seek professional help. 

Our material is not in any way a substitute for obtaining professional help. For additional resources for individuals who may be in crisis or need assistance, contact the SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline at 1–800–985–5990

Additional Resources Include:
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
NAMI Helpline: 800-950-NAMI
Trevor Project (LGBTQ+ Youth): Text START to 678678
Children’s Mental Health Matters! Facts for Families — First Steps in Seeking Help www.ChildrensMentalHealthMatters.org
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry This site contains resources for families to promote an understanding of mental illnesses. www.aacap.org The Depressed Child (which was a reference for this fact sheet)
https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/The-Depressed-Child-004.aspx Grief and Children
National Institute of Mental Health NIMH strives to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illness through basic clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and cure. Visit NIMH for information on clinical trial and mental health information, statistics, and resources. http://www.nimh.nih.gov Depression in Children & Adolescents
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/ depression-in-children-and-adolescents.shtml 


Children’s Mental Health Matters. Facts for Families: Attention Deficit Hyper-activity Disorder. 2021. https://www.childrensmentalhealthmatters.org/files/2021/03/ADHD-2021.pdf.

Children’s Mental Health Matters. Facts for Families: Anxiety Disorders. 2021. https://www.childrensmentalhealthmatters.org/files/2021/03/Anxiety-Disorders-2021.pdf.

Children’s Mental Health Matters. Facts for Families: Depression. 2021. https://www.childrensmentalhealthmatters.org/files/2021/03/Depression-2021.pdf.

FIC. Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. Family Involvement Center. Nd. https://www.familyinvolvementcenter.org/get-involved/childrens-mental-health-awareness-week.


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