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5 Subtle Signs of Mental Illness in Children that Every Parent Should Know

While it’s something parents likely don’t want to talk about, mental illness does impact children of every age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as one in six children under the age of eight have been diagnosed with a mental, developmental, or behavioral disorder.

The reason we must talk about it is that being aware of the signs and detecting it early on is important. It can be the key to intervening and helping our kids to lead healthier and happier lives. Believe it or not, children can struggle with many of the same mental illnesses as adults.

The difference however, is that they may have a difficult time explaining what they are feeling. And, identifying the need for a professional diagnosis can be more difficult.

Sometimes the signs are not obvious and well meaning friends and family brush them off as no big deal.

Think about how many times you’ve heard phrases like this:

It’s just kids being kids.”

Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s just growing pains.”

She’ll get over it.”

“Don’t worry, he’ll never remember this.”

Or perhaps the most dangerous – “Kids are resilient creatures. They can handle anything.”

But, what if they can’t? What if inside children are fighting a losing battle that parents can’t see?

There are five subtle signs of mental illness parents should know:

  1. Loss of interest in preferred activities
  2. Irritability
  3. Changes in self-care
  4. Self-isolating behavior
  5. Aches and pains

Admittedly, these signs in and of themselves might not be proof positive that your child is dealing with a mental illness.

There are times you might want to be concerned such as:

  • If there are several signs presenting themselves at once
  • The signs are extreme and/or
  • These “symptoms” are persisting for long periods of time

Let’s examine each of theses signs a little more deeply to give you a better idea of what to look for.

1. Loss of Interest in Preferred Activities

One of the most common signs associated with many different mental illnesses is loss of interest in once preferred activities, people, or places.

This sign can be present in mental illnesses like:

A loss in interest is easy to ignore. Many parents simply assume that their child is growing out of things and exploring new interests.

For example, suppose your child really wanted to play little league baseball. Things are going great at first, but then suddenly they want to play football instead.

For some kids – it’s completely normal to get bored with baseball and want to play football.

The difference in mentally ill children is that they tend to lose interest suddenly. They also may not replace a hobby with a new one.

What could be happening in this case?

Maybe your child is feeling overly anxious about how they hold the bat. Or, perhaps they can’t handle being around other children for long periods of time because all of the noise is overstimulating to them.

When should you be concerned about a loss of interest in activities?

If your child has loved baseball for a significant period of time such as several months or years. Suddenly your child doesn’t want to participate in games or practice anymore – this can be a cause for concern.

2. Irritability

Children who display persistent and unwarranted irritable behavior. They may be struggling with a deeper issue.

Bouts of irritability are considered normal during childhood and adolescence. They tend to be short-lived and associated with a cause. Even when the cause is minor, it’s not abnormal for a child or teenager to become irritable.

When should you be concerned about irritability?

If your child is becoming irritable on a more frequent basis with no known reason. If the episodes are getting longer and more intense, it may be time to seek psychological help.

Keep an eye out for:

3. Changes in Self-Care

Children aren’t always the greatest when it comes to personal hygiene. This could be why this sign can be tough to spot.

However, most kids have some kind of self-care routine that they generally stick with.

Occasional lapses may not signal a mental health concern. Pervasive and significant changes in how your child cares for themselves should spark action.

Here are a few signs of a depressive or anxiety disorder:

  • Consistent refusal to brush teeth
  • No longer brushing hair
  • Refusing to take a bath
  • Wearing the same clothes repeatedly(without washing them)
  • Mismatching clothes
  • Wearing seasonally inappropriate outfits
    • i.e. hoodies in the summer tank tops in the winter, even refusing to bring an umbrella while walking in the rain

Additional signs of mental illness related to self-care include:

  • No longer eating foods they once loved, or not eating at all. This could be related to body dysmorphia or an eating disorder.
  • Separating all food by category or color. Getting extremely anxious of food touches.
  • Refusing to go to school if they run out of makeup
  • Extreme insomnia or sleeping far too much
  • Working out too much or no longer working out at all

When should you be concerned about changes in self care?

If your child’s appearance changes drastically, they seem lethargic, stop eating, are eating too much, these could be waring signs. If they just stop caring about their looks entirely, it might be time to seek professional help.

4. Self-Isolating Behavior

Another sign of mental illness in kids is self-isolating behavior.

Your child may be struggling with a bigger problem such as an anxiety or depressive disorder if:

  • They have a sudden disinterest in spending time with other people
  • Attempts to be alone more often than not
  • Tries to avoid school (particularly if they used to love school)
  • Talks too frequently about how much better life would be without them around

It’s worth noting, however, that other things might also trigger these behaviors. For example:

This is why it is important to talk with your child before blindly seeking professional help.

When should you be concerned about self-isolating behavior?

If the episodes of self isolation persist for longer than a couple of days. And, if they are unwilling to discuss what’s going on, it may be a cause for concern.

At the same time, your child might just need some space. This is especially true if there are significant periods of stress or change. It might be due to moving to a new town, starting a new school, going through a breakup for example.

In this case, it’s important to make it clear to your child that you are there for them if they want to talk. If your child is exhibiting self-isolating behavior in combination with other signs on this list, and/or self harm activities, it may be time to go ahead and seek help.

5. Aches and Pains

Children with mental illness often complain about bodily aches and pains. They are especially in the stomach and head.

While the exact cause is unknown, these symptoms are alarming. They often lead parents to seek answers from their child’s pediatrician.

Unfortunately, these pains are not always related to a physical issue. It can take months or even years for psychological services to be brought up as a potential solution.

A child complaining of a tummy ache might be saying the pain is there because they don’t know how else to describe the anxiety they feel over any number of issues. A “tension” headache in a child can be a result of extreme stress. These are just two examples, however the point is that in some cases a psychological evaluation may be the right choice instead of a physical exam.

When should you be concerned about aches and pains in a child?

If other signs of mental illness are apparent in your child and/or they have already been examined by their pediatrician.

Where To Go From Here

Catching mental illness early on is critical for successful management and recovery. If you have a genuine cause for concern, start by asking your children how they are feeling. Communication is the first line of defense when we’re worried about our kids.

An important word of caution: When you approach your children, make sure it is from a place of non judgment. The last thing you want from them if you have a concern about mental illness is for them to shut down because they feel they can’t talk to you.

Don’t overlook strange behaviors and assume your children are fine. Instead, make it clear they can talk to you about anything. The more you open up, the more likely they are to open up as well.

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Pathways Counseling Services knows that parents need to be involved in their child’s mental health. It is important to find the right professional counselor that can become part of the mental health team for your child.

Pathways Counseling Services is the top-rated therapy and counseling service in Scottsdale, Arizona, year after year. We can help your child live a happier and healthier life through effective and supportive mental health care. Book an appointment today, or you can reach us by phone at 480-235-1682