Childhood Mental Disorders And Illnesses Research Articles And Resources

Danielle Smith
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What Are Childhood Mental Disorders?

A childhood mental disorder is a significant change in behavior that causes serious problems with the way a child or adolescent functions on a daily basis. Persistent and serious disruptive behavior problems that interfere with home, play, or school activities may require intervention by a mental health professional. (1) Without proper treatment, these disorders may continue into adulthood.
Like any childhood illness, the symptoms, behaviors, and problems associated with a childhood mental disorder may vary from child to child. Contributing factors such as home life, developmental strengths and weaknesses, coping mechanisms, and support systems can cause marked differences in the behaviors of different children with the same disorder. For example, in spectrum disorders such as autism, a wide range of emotional and mental disabilities and abilities may exist. On one end of the spectrum, a child with autism may be nonverbal and completely dependent, while on the other end, a child may have superior intellectual abilities while still being socially inhibited. (2)

Nearly five million children in the U.S. alone have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness that interferes significantly with daily life. (3)Their illnesses also affect the daily lives of those around them, including family, teachers, and friends.


What Causes Childhood Mental Disorders?

While some children's mental health issues are hereditary, it's more often a combination of genetics and childhood experiences that contribute to these conditions. Toxic stress, such as mental and physical abuse, bullying, or profound neglect, can cause brain damage in very young children. This damage increases the likelihood that significant mental health disorders will present themselves early on or in the future.
Children exposed to family stress such as persistent poverty, domestic violence, or a parent with substance abuse issues are especially vulnerable to childhood anxiety and childhood depression. (4)

Some mental health disorders in children, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder, haven't been found to have a specific cause. Theorists attribute these disorders to everything from red food dye to childhood vaccines, but there's no clinical evidence to support these claims. Research is ongoing, with one recent study finding that women who have a fever in their second trimester may have a stronger chance of having a child with autism. (5)

If these disorders and childhood illnesses are recognized and treated early, children are more likely to reach their full potential. Many adults with mental health problems say they wish they'd received treatment earlier. (6)

What Are the Symptoms of Childhood Mental Disorders?

While there isn't a single set of symptoms of childhood mental disorders, some disorders share many of the same symptoms. There's a list of warning signs parents and teachers can look out for; however, not all are indicative of mental illness. They can instead be a sign of some sort of extraordinary stress or trauma. The warning signs include: (7)

  • Prolonged sadness lasting more than two weeks
  • Missing or avoiding school
  • Avoiding or withdrawing from social interaction
  • Changes in performance in grades or extracurricular activities
  • Self-abuse, such as cutting, or talking about wanting to hurt themselves
  • Lack of concentration
  • Speaking about suicide or death
  • Frequent stomachaches or headaches
  • Extreme irritability with frequent outbursts
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Harmful out-of-control behavior
  • Unexpected weight loss or gain
  • Drastic mood, personality, or behavior changes
  • Sudden changes in eating habits

If your child exhibits one or more of these warning signs, consult your family physician for a complete examination to rule out physical causes. Avoid the temptation to brush it off as a stage or phase. Early diagnosis is the best way to receive much-needed support and help slow the progress of potentially dangerous mental disorders.

Does My Child Have a Mental Disorder? How Are Childhood Mental Disorders Diagnosed?

A children's mental health diagnosis is accomplished by assessing the signs and symptoms and how they affect everyday life. After a complete physical exam by your family doctor, the child may be referred to a mental health professional for further evaluation. The evaluation can include a parent's observations and concerns, academic history, the family's mental health history, and an interview with the child. A doctor will use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a basis for a diagnosis and treatment plan.
Diagnosing children is often a lengthy process because children may not comprehend or express their feelings well.

What Is the Best Treatment for Childhood Mental Disorders?

Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, helps children learn to talk about their thoughts and feelings and how to handle them. It teaches children new behaviors and coping skills for behaviors such as anger or social anxiety. Occupational therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy can also be useful tools.
Medications such as stimulants, mood stabilizers, antidepressants, antipsychotics, or antianxiety medicines, may be prescribed as part of the treatment plan. Your provider will explain each medication's side effects, benefits, and risks. It can be administered by school administrators if necessary. (7)

How to Cope With a Childhood Mental Disorder Diagnosis

Having a child with mental illness, especially a challenging disorder such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), can be stressful for the entire family. Family counseling can help everyone cope. Enroll in parental training that's specific to dealing with a child with a mental disorder, and pursue stress management techniques to help unwind.
Enlist the cooperation of your child's counselor and school for help with other aspects of your child's development and treatment and assistance monitoring behavior patterns when your child is outside your care.

How to Help Someone With a Childhood Mental Disorder

As a parent or caregiver, there are many ways you can help improve your children's mental health. Start by modeling healthy coping skills in your own life. Children with mental disorders benefit from routine and clear boundaries. Watch for behavior changes and let them know you're there for them. Make them feel loved and supported by providing encouragement and positive feedback. Talk about their feelings and emotions with them so they feel comfortable sharing with you and work to keep those lines of communication open. (8)
Above all, it’s crucial to remember that childhood mental disorders should always be taken seriously. It can be difficult to accept your child’s mental health diagnosis, but being in denial or adapting a “wait and see” approach will only delay access to important services and life-changing care. As parents, reacting quickly and facilitating early intervention can make all the difference for your child’s future.