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Child Development

13 Possible Signs of Childhood Mental Illness

Nearly 1 in 5 children has an emotional or behavioral disorder.

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Most parents have an instantaneous desire to protect their children. We tend to our children’s needs: If an unexplained rash appears, we see the doctor. If a fever spikes, we see the doctor. If a bone seems injured, we see the doctor.

Visible wounds are relatively easy to recognize. It's different when a child begins having problems at school or with friends, or if he or she becomes uncooperative and has inexplicable outbursts. Such occurrences often leave parents feeling confused and unsure about what to do.

Nearly one in five children is affected with an emotional or behavioral disorder. You may recognize that something is not right, but what it is or what to do remains a mystery.

Warning Signs and Parent Radar

A doctor, relative, or friend may tell you it’s "a stage," but you feel that the “stage” has lasted too long, the behavior is too disruptive, or failing grades don’t improve no matter what you or the school tries.

The following warning signs may indicate a problem needing specialized attention. The list is culled from Ann Douglas’s book, Parenting Through the Storm: Find Help, Home, and Strength When Your Child Has Psychological Problems. You are looking for indications that your child may be experiencing one or more of these symptoms, which are also atypical for his or her developmental stage and not related to a move, divorce, or other stressful event:

  1. Your child is having more difficulty at school.
  2. Your child is hitting or bullying other children.
  3. Your child is attempting to injure himself.
  4. Your child is avoiding friends and family.
  5. Your child is experiencing frequent mood swings.
  6. Your child is experiencing intense emotions such as angry outbursts or extreme fear.
  7. Your child is lacking energy or motivation.
  8. Your child is having difficulty concentrating.
  9. Your child is having difficulty sleeping, or is having a lot of nightmares.
  10. Your child has a lot of physical complaints.
  11. Your child is neglecting his or her appearance.
  12. Your child is obsessed with his or her weight, shape, or appearance.
  13. Your child is eating significantly more or less than usual.

(For a more complete list including infant warning signs and helpful forms, click here.)

By listening to your parent radar, and with Ann Douglas’s help, you can voice your concerns and begin the journey of finding (and fighting for) the help your child may need. Few are better able to guide parents through the agonizing uncertainty and turmoil of a child with a mental health problem than Douglas. In addition to raising four children, all of whom had serious mental health challenges—bipolar disorder, anorexia, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and depression—she has done parents’ homework for them, integrating other family stories and advice from child psychologists and other professionals in the field. She also explains unfamiliar clinical jargon and how to navigate the mental health system.

Even once you have a diagnosis, it is critical to listen to your parent radar. Mark, the father of a 12-year-old diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, an anxiety disorder, and a moderate developmental disability, told Douglas that his son “didn’t have the ability to say what he really needed…until your child can help you with that part, trust your gut and be that voice.”

Navigating the “Storm”

Should you find yourself and your child on the emotional roller coaster of a mental-health challenge, you will, as the book’s subtitle suggests, need help and hope. You must take care of yourself and stay strong for your child, and also know when to befriend others who have faced similar challenges so you don’t feel isolated and alone. Douglas compassionately explains how to develop essential coping skills to support your child while also taking care of the rest of your family and your marriage.

Douglas’s sage advice, research, and comforting support will get you through the storm. “I wrote this book," she says, "in the hope of making the journey a little less lonely—and a lot less overwhelming.”

Related: Avoiding ADHD’s Wide Net: One Parent, One Child at a Time

Copyright @2016, 2019 by Susan Newman


Douglas, Ann. Parenting Through the Storm: Find Help, Hope, and Strength When Your Child Has Psychological Problems. New York: Guilford Press, 2016.

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