When your child has a mental illness

by Polly N on April 9, 2013

As a parent we all hope our children will be “normal.” When we find them exhibiting unusual or even scary behaviours our first impulse is often to turn to discipline techniques, positive reinforcement behaviour programs, or ask our paediatrician to screen for hyperactivity.


Sometimes these things will work, but some severe behaviors may indicate that your child actually has a mental illness. In fact, half of all mental illness cases begin before the age of 14.

  • Some warning signs of mental illness in children are:
  • Severe, long lasting tantrums especially if they are violent
  • Life threatening behaviour or threat
  • Aggressive behaviour towards others or animals
  • Seeming inability to understand how consequences correspond to actions
  • Depression or anxiousness
  • Digressing to behaviours that are not age appropriate like bed wetting

If your child is exhibiting any of these symptoms, they may be suffering from a biological or developmental issue called a mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.”

According to Kids Mental Health common disorders diagnosed in children include:

  • Anxiety
  • Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder
  • Autistic Disorder
  • Eating problems
  • Bathroom issues

Mental illnesses like these can cause serious academic, social, physical and emotional problems for children.

It can be very hard for parents to recognize the need to reach out for help, but it is critical to the long-term wellness of your child. Children with a mental illness will need medical or psychological help to get better or learn to cope with their issues. Some disorders can get better over time, but others will last for their lifetime. Getting appropriate treatment as soon as possible is extremely important.

If your child is exhibiting these types of behaviors, start with your pediatrician for an initial evaluation. He will consider possible biological causes for your child’s behaviors. If he cannot find a biological cause he will likely refer you to a child psychologist who can diagnose other disorders. Through a series of assessment tools, a psychologist will determine if your child has a mental illness and can prescribe drugs and other therapies. It is important that you are open and honest with mental health professionals.

There are varying levels of services available to children with mental illness. Outpatient care includes regular appointments with a psychologist, art therapy, animal therapy and other therapies. Schools offer services including specialized instruction and behavior plans. If a child cannot function successfully at home or in a school setting they may benefit from day treatment programs. There are also in-home services where a group of professionals work with your child in the home. In some cases serious interventions are required—most notably when the child is a danger to themselves or to others.

Facilities like schizophrenia treatment center san diego and John Hopkins Children’s Mental Health Center offer comprehensive services for ongoing outpatient treatment and residential care. Look for referrals from your pediatrician and psychologist for the best services available in your area.

It can be heart breaking to find out that your child has a mental illness and devastating to realize that they need higher levels of care. However, your child needs you to advocate for them so they can have the best outcomes possible for their diagnosis. With treatment people with mental illness can live fulfilling, successful lives.


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