Like adults, children and adolescents can have mental health disorders that interfere with the way they think, feel, and act. When untreated, mental health disorders can lead to school failure, family conflicts, drug abuse, violence, and even suicide. Untreated mental health disorders can be very costly to families, communities, and the health care system.

Studies show that at least one in five children and adolescents have a mental health disorder. Research indicates:

  • 20% of children ages 9 to 17 had a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder with minimum impairment
  • 11% experienced significant functional impairment as a result of a mental health disorder
  • 5% experienced extreme functional impairment

Tragically, research also shows the majority of children with mental health disorders fail to receive any treatment at all.

The good news is that treatment works. Psychotherapy, sometimes in conjunction with medications, has been shown to be very effective in reducing the levels of distress in children who are experiencing mental health problems.

When to seek help:

All children experience periods of anger, frustration and sadness. Families often wonder if what their child is experiencing or how they are behaving are typical aspects of normative development. When trying to separate what is normal from what is not, consider several things:

  • How long has the behavior or emotions been going on — days, weeks, or months?
  • How frequently does the behavior or emotions occur — several times a day, once a day, once a week?
  • How intense are the behaviors — annoying, upsetting, very disruptive?
  • Has there been a traumatic event in the child’s life, such as a death, accident, illness or changes with the family?
  • The following are signs that may indicate the need to seek help from a mental health professional:
Younger Children
  • Problems related to attachment between caregiver and child
  • Separation anxiety
  • Marked fall in school performance
  • Poor grades in school despite trying very hard
  • Severe worry or anxiety, as shown by regular refusal to go to school, go to sleep or take part in activities that are normal for the child’s age
  • Hyperactivity; fidgeting; constant movement beyond regular playing
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression (longer than six months) and provocative opposition to authority figures
  • Frequent, unexplainable temper tantrums
Pre-Adolescents and Adolescents
  • Marked change in school performance
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • Marked changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Frequent physical complaints
  • Sexual acting out
  • Depression shown by sustained, prolonged negative mood and attitude, often accompanied by poor appetite, difficulty sleeping or thoughts of death
  • Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs
  • Intense fear of becoming obese with no relationship to actual body weight, purging food, or restricting eating
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Threats of self-harm or harm to others
  • Self-injury or self destructive behavior
  • Frequent outburst of anger, aggression
  • Threats to run away
  • Aggressive or non-aggressive consistent violation of rights of others; opposition to authority, truancy, thefts, or vandalism
  • Strange thoughts, beliefs, feelings, or unusual behaviors

(From the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “Facts for Families”)

The Bottom Line — Trust Your Gut!

You know your child better than anyone. If you think there is a problem, trust your instincts and seek help. You will be glad you did.

On deciding that your child may need help, families then wonder, where to go to get help? Refer to the section on “Finding Help” for information on how best to locate help for your child.