By Cindy Coloma
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one in five children experience a mental health condition every year.1 Mental health is a hot topic in the news, and with the coverage and new research, some parents worry about their own kids. Worrying about your child’s mental health is completely normal, and there are signs to look for.
When Should I Start Worrying About my Child’s Mental Health?
As a parent, it can be difficult to know what’s normal in child development and what isn’t. Here are a few examples of symptoms that may indicate a need for mental health care.2
Frequent extreme tantrums: Kids will not usually come right out and tell you they are feeling very anxious. Severe anxiety will often manifest itself through behavior. For example, extreme and frequent tantrums before or during age-appropriate activities at home or in public may be a sign that your child is experiencing severe anxiety.
Separation anxiety: Many children go through periods when they are fearful of new people or places, or they are afraid of being alone. However, separation anxiety disorder can be marked by great emotional distress when faced with separation from a parent, even if the parent simply walks into the next room. Some children may also experience symptoms such as stomach aches, dizziness, headaches or other physical symptoms when faced with separation. If the symptoms are extreme or continue for a prolonged period of time (four weeks or more), it may be time to find help.3
Social anxiety: When it comes to situations such as speaking in public, we can all get a little nervous sometimes. However, when social activities cause physical illness or severe emotional distress or tantrums, a child may try anything in their power to avoid social events. Their fear of not pleasing people, of not fitting in or of potentially embarrassing themselves may be so overwhelming they cannot interact in an age-appropriate manner during everyday social interactions.
Obsessive-compulsive behavior: If a child is compelled to perform repetitive rituals to make intense fears go away (such as locking and unlocking doors several times, touching parts of their bodies in a certain order or continually washing their hands), or they insist you participate in these rituals with them, they may need help with an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Selective Mutism: Some kids can be naturally “shy” at school or in social situations, but selective mutism is an actual disorder that can cause children great distress. If your child freezes up and is unable to respond when they’re spoken to, or if freezing up prevents them from participating in school or other age-appropriate activities, they may need to see a clinician.
What are Some Steps I can Take to Support my Child’s Mental Health?
Don’t ignore symptoms: Research has shown that early intervention, especially with children in their early formative years (ages 3-5), leads to better mental health outcomes. Seeking professional input early on instead of hoping symptoms resolve can make a big difference.4
Leave stigmas behind: Don’t be a barrier to your child’s good health. Many parents are concerned they or their child may be “labeled,” which can be a concern that keeps kids from getting the care they need. Reject labels or stigmas, and you will be able to strongly advocate for your child when they need mental health care.
Trust your gut: If you have a concern about something, be persistent. It’s not always easy to access care, but your child will benefit from a parent who advocates and continues to ask the hard questions. If a mental health provider isn’t a good fit for your family, keep looking. Find a clinician who specializes in children and will take time to explain the process and go over your options.
What resources and options are available for me as a parent in regards to my child’s mental health?
If you’re a parent who worries that your child may need mental health services, you’ve most likely scoured the Internet for tips and advice. However, face-to-face encounters with a professional can help when you don’t know where else to turn. Although services vary from state to state, it’s likely there are local resources and options to help you take the next step.
Early intervention programs: Most counties have early intervention programs available for ages 0-3 to address your concerns. Call your county of residence to find out what services may be available for your child.
Local school district: Many school districts have programs in place to assist children ages 3 and older. Check your school district’s website or give their special education department a call to see what’s available in your area.
Health insurance referrals: If you have health insurance, contact your carrier to see what your behavioral health benefit is and to be referred to a mental health provider.
The best way to care for your child if you’re concerned about their mental health is to trust your instincts and take action. As a parent, you know what is normal for your child and what isn’t. If you feel you need extra support, partnering with a skilled mental health clinician is a great way to ensure good mental health for the whole family.
1“Improving Children’s Mental Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Accessed July 26, 2018.
2”When To Worry About Your Child’s Worries.” Parents.com, Accessed July 25, 2018.
3 “Separation Anxiety in Children.” WebMD, Accessed July 2018.
4 Campbell, Leah.”Why Early Intervention Is So Important For Children’s Mental Health Issues.” Healthline, May 1, 2018.