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The Top 13 Reasons Why Kids Have Mental Health Problems

Start with this strategy to address the most frequent cause of problems.

Key points

  • Making small changes in parenting can resolve a child's mental health problem.
  • The number one cause of children’s psychological problems (apart from severe abuse and neglect) is parents arguing in front of their kids.
  • My recommendation to parents: Stop fighting in front of your child for one month. Have your arguments outside the house.

In my more than two decades of treating children with mental health problems like ADHD, anxiety, childhood depression, oppositional defiant disorder, ASD, and many other conditions, I have found that making changes in the parenting environment can usually resolve the child’s problem. Even if parents have been told that their child’s problem is biological (such as a defect in their brain) making changes in parenting can do no harm and, in my experience, can resolve the problem without resorting to psychiatric medication.

Here are the main reasons that children have emotional, focusing, or behavioral problems.

  1. Parents arguing in front of the child
  2. A parent’s illness or injury
  3. Inconsistent discipline
  4. Parents not on the same page about discipline
  5. One or both parents experiencing stress in their job
  6. Trauma like abuse, neglect, or witnessing domestic violence
  7. Conflict with in-laws
  8. Yelling at the child instead of calmly enforcing rules
  9. Child being bullied at school
  10. Parents giving in to the child’s tantrums
  11. Not enough physical exercise (especially for highly energetic boys)
  12. Too much time on electronic screens
  13. Parents not being present for their child

In this post, I offer strategies to deal with the first problem. In subsequent posts, I will offer techniques to help with the others.

I have found that the number one cause of children’s psychological problems (apart from severe abuse and neglect) is parents having arguments in front of their kids. How do I know that kids start to have problems when they hear their parents fighting? Simple. The kids tell me. But research also backs up my clinical experience.

A research study, published March 13, 2018, in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, sought to discover whether children’s exposure to inter-parental conflict, a much less severe form of adversity than abuse or neglect, is associated with children's emotional distress.

The lead researcher of the study, Alice Schermerhorn, assistant professor in the University of Vermont’s Department of Psychological Sciences, explains that even though parental conflict is a less severe, less traumatic experience than severe adversity like abuse, it is also more prevalent, and therefore has implications for a larger portion of the population.

My recommendation to parents is this: Stop fighting in front of your child for one month. Have your arguments outside the house away from your child's ears: Go out to dinner, take a walk in the neighborhood, or have arguments in the car with the windows rolled up after the children have gone to bed. If your marital conflicts are severe, parents might want to seek marriage counseling. I make this recommendation often. When inter-parental conflict disappears, often a child’s mental health diagnosis disappears as well. Try it for a month and see if it makes a difference. What have you got to lose?

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