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September 12, 2014
by Cathy England, MA

Recognizing and Treating Mental Health in Children

September 12, 2014 04:55 by Cathy England, MA  [About the Author]

Catching It Early

Many children struggle with mental illness. However, unlike adults, the symptoms are different and can be more difficult to recognize. Sometimes parents are unaware of the warning signs of mental illness in children, and if it is recognized, they may not know who to turn to. Statistics show that up to half of ongoing mental health issues begin in children before the age of 14 (National Institute of Mental Health, n.d.) and often times early treatment and intervention is beneficial to children and can help to achieve a better long-term outcome. Mental health issues affect children in school, at home and in the community, and left untreated can cause delays in development in those domains.

The National Institute of Mental Health (n.d.) refers to the fact that sometimes it is subtle early signs that can indicate the presence of a mental illness that may be developing and in some cases catching those signs early can help to prevent the illness from becoming more serious. However, they also note that many children go untreated because those signs are missed by parents, teachers, and medical professionals.  Even when recognized, treatment options are not fully understood and improper treatment is given. Sometimes these children are just not being treated at all.

Is This Normal Development or Something Else?

There are a number of reasons that signs of mental illness are missed in the younger years.  Often parents do not have such considerations on their radar or explain problem behaviors away as being part of normal development or think that it might just be a stage that the child is going through (Mayo Clinic, n.d.). Sometimes symptoms seem to come and go, and the inconsistency can be confusing for parents. In the case of teachers who might miss symptoms, they are often not well-versed in what problems to look for. Many children begin to present with problem behavior that can also be explained away by teachers and in the meantime a developing mental illness could be present. Misdiagnosis by medical professionals can also be a problem. A general practitioner may attribute these signs as being due to a medical issue or allergy and try various treatments to address those first.

Common Mental Health Concerns in Children

Some of the common mental health concerns in children include anxiety disorders, attention deficit disorders, autism, mood disorders and eating disorders (Mayo Clinic, n.d.). Very few parents want to recognize that one of these may be affecting their child due to the expected stigma and fear about treatment. Some of the most common signs of a mental health problem may include behavior changes, extreme reactions and mood changes, or difficulty with concentration. A parent or teacher should keep an eye on such behaviors and even track the child’s behavior and mood. In some cases, the behaviors can be situation specific, so good communication between family members, school staff and medical professionals is important in early diagnosis. In addition, family doctors often see children on a regular basis, and screening children for warning signs can become part of every visit.

Treatment for Children and Teens

Regarding treatment, although it is sometimes scary for parents to admit that there may be a problem, finding a qualified mental health provider is a good first step. Many psychiatrists are trained in and exclusively treat childhood mental health disorders (National Association of Mental Health, n.d.). An additional problem is that many of the symptoms of mental health are similar among disorders in childhood. A doctor may be reluctant to aggressively treat a mental health problem for fear of making an incorrect diagnosis without further observation. Parents may also be resistant to treating children, especially with medication, due to side effects and misunderstanding about what treatments may mean for their children. It is important as a parent to receive education about a child’s potential mental health issue and to understand that early treatment will help in many cases, to alleviate their symptoms. Generally speaking, treatment options for mental health issues in children include a dual approach including psychotherapy and medication. In psychotherapy, family members are often included since they will be the ones making sure that medications are administered and that behavioral interventions are implemented. In many schools, there are special classes or accommodations made for children who need emotional support in order to learn more effectively. Side effects from medication are not uncommon and specialized education approaches can help to ensure that children are receiving the education that they need.

Finding out that a child has a mental illness is hard on family members and that should not be ignored. There are often support groups and online forums that can help family members understand and talk about fears and frustrations. In any case, symptoms and treatment should not be ignored. Children with mental illness may turn to drug or alcohol use or self-destructive behaviors later on if they do not receive the treatment that they need. Raising a child with a mental illness can be difficult, but with proper education and effective treatment, they can live a relatively normal life.


Mayo Clinic (n.d.). Mental illness in children: Know the signs. Retrieved from

National Association of Mental Illness (n.d.). Tough choices: Treating mental illness in children. Retrieved from 

National Institutes of Mental Health (n.d.) Treatment of children with mental health. Retrieved from

About the Author

Cathy England, MA Cathy England, MA

Cathy holds a Master’s degree in Psychology and has 13 years of work experience in counseling and social work. Cathy is an advocate for mental health awareness and enjoys educating people about mental health and the ways that it impacts people and communities. Most of her experience has been in work with court dependent or delinquent adolescents and their families. Cathy has also worked as a volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children under court supervision.

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