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A Definitive Guide for How You Can Support Your Child With Mental Illness

Are you worried about your child's emotional well-being? You're certainly not alone. Research shows that as many as 1 in 6 U.S children has a mental illness. And while there aren't any complete cures, the right support and treatment can make a valuable difference in your child's life.

Unfortunately, knowing what to do isn't always straightforward. Many parents feel scared or confused about how to help their child. They may worry things will never get better. Or, they might struggle with their own mental health and worry about the impact their situation has on their child.

Education and awareness are key for everyone in the family. Here's what you need to know.

Understanding Key Warning Signs

Is it just a phase? Many parents ask themselves this classic question when observing their child's behavior. And to complicate matters, many symptoms are indicative of standard childhood development. And, indeed, some children do grow out of mental health symptoms.

You may not be able to discern every behavioral change or red flag, but it's important to educate yourself on common childhood mental illnesses and their related symptoms.

Anxiety disorders: Most children experience irrational worries and fear. This is particularly true in younger children. But when a child doesn't outgrow their fears- or becomes very afraid of certain situations, they may be experiencing anxiety. Look for symptoms of social nervousness, anxiety about bad things happening, sleep problems, or physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, fatigue). Keep in mind that children may be embarrassed about their anxiety and try to keep the worries hidden.

Depression: Children with depression may experience similar symptoms as adults with depression. For example, they might withdraw from loved ones, lose interest in normal hobbies, or show themes of guilt and worthlessness. Very young children may experience physical symptoms like stomach cramps, headaches, or regression (bedwetting, acting like a baby or toddler).

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD): Children with ODD often present as excessively angry, and they struggle with regulating their emotions. They frequently argue with authority figures and seem resentful or critical. They also intentionally annoy other people without taking any real accountability for their actions. ODD symptoms manifest during early elementary school, and symptoms must appear before age 12.

ADHD: Nearly 10% of all U.S children ages 3-17 have ADHD. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed than girls, but some researchers speculate that's due to societal factors. Children with ADHD often present as forgetful, impulsive, and restless. They can present with hyperactive symptoms, like being disruptive or overly talkative. They can also have inattentive symptoms, such as difficulty paying attention to details, completing tasks, or staying organized.

Eating disorders: Eating disorder symptoms often emerge during adolescence. Look out for weight fluctuations, rigid food behaviors, a sudden interest in dieting or calories, missing food, signs of excessive exercise, or concerns about purging. While girls have higher rates of eating disorders than boys, boys' symptoms risk going unnoticed and untreated.

Substance use disorders: Many people begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol during adolescence. While experimentation alone does not indicate a problem, some teenagers do exhibit signs of substance abuse from a young age. These individuals may exhibit mood swings, poor hygiene, changes in friend groups, academic problems, and secretive behavior.

How Are Childhood Mental Health Illnesses Diagnosed?

If you suspect your child has a mental health issue, it's important to consider seeking a further assessment. Only a qualified healthcare professional can make a diagnosis. And while a diagnosis may seem scary, it can establish an appropriate treatment plan and the best care considerations.

It's usually helpful to start with your child's pediatrician. They will usually complete a physical exam to rule out any potential health concerns. They might then recommend specialized evaluation by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or another mental health professional.

Such evaluations often include reviewing the current and past symptoms (along with their frequency and intensity), standardized assessments, and a history of mental health. Family members may also be brought in for interviews.

How Do You Best Support Your Child's Mental Health?

If you recognize that your child has a mental health issue, it's important to be patient, compassionate, and supportive. But what specifically should you say or do to help them? Here are some specific tips.

Learn about the condition: As much as possible, aim to educate yourself on the condition, symptoms, and treatment. Even if you don't know anyone experiencing this condition, you can look online to read through other people's experiences.

Engage in active listening as much as possible: Be open and curious about your child's feelings. Try to avoid assuming you know what they need. If they open up to you, limit any distractions. Ask clarifying questions like, Can you explain that a bit more to me? if you don't understand a specific concept.

Participate in family therapy: A child's mental health can be indicative of the entire family system's level of functioning. Family therapy can help all of you communicate effectively. It can also give you appropriate parenting tools for collaborating with your child.

Practice positive reinforcement: Praise and reinforce when your child makes healthy decisions. For the younger child, this reinforcement can be as simple as giving direct praise, high-fives, or more encouragement. Older children often benefit from direct and specific praise. Tangible rewards can also be effective, but they should never be used as bribes, and they must be consistent and readily identifiable.

Seek opportunities for strengthening resilience: Resilience is an important part of a child's development. You can build resilience by encouraging emotional regulation skills, giving opportunities for autonomy, and fostering an ongoing sense of competence.

Model looking after your own mental health: Children are always watching what you do, even if you don't realize it. If you want your child to use healthy coping skills, you must be willing to practice them yourself! Aim to prioritize routine stress management as part of your standard routine.

Work with their treatment team and school: Mental health treatment thrives when everyone is on board. So, try to keep an open line of communication with your child's therapist, doctor, teacher, and other specialists. If you don't agree with a specific intervention, inquire about it. Don't undermine any professionals in front of your child. You want to present as a united front.

What Kind of Mental Health Treatment Is Most Effective for Children?

Lifestyle changes and family support can help children manage some of their symptoms. In milder or more situational cases, symptoms may reduce or disappear entirely.

However, if things seem stagnant- or symptoms are worsening- it may be time to consider more professional intervention. Remember that this does not mean you have failed at anything. Just like you wouldn't treat your child's broken arm, you are not inherently responsible for treating their mental health.

Play therapy: Young children tend to be receptive to play interventions instead of direct talk therapy. Playing with various toys, drawing, or acting out scenes can help them process particular emotions and memories. A therapist may engage in play therapy with a child individually or with the family present.

Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT): PCIT focuses on helping parents and children ages 2-8 build positive relationships with one another. Your therapist will teach you effective parenting skills, discipline techniques, and behavioral management strategies to use with your child.

Trauma-focused CBT (TF-CBT): TF-CBT is a structured, evidence-based treatment for children and adolescents with histories of trauma. Sessions typically focus on identifying negative thought patterns and replacing them with more adaptive ones. The average length of treatment is about 4-6 months.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): DBT combines cognitive and mindfulness exercises to help people with emotional regulation and distress tolerance. This type of therapy can be particularly helpful for adolescents struggling with self-harm, impulsivity, or suicidal thoughts.

Residential mental health treatment: High-risk adolescents with severe mental health conditions may be referred to residential treatment. These facilities offer 24/7 monitoring, supervision, and structure. Your child will engage in a 'day program' that consists of various individual and group therapies, and they will work on a specific treatment plan designed to reduce symptoms and improve overall emotional health.

Psychiatric medication: Because their brains are still developing, psychiatric medication for children remains somewhat controversial. However, research shows some children may benefit from antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics. It's important to closely review side effects and outweigh potential risks and benefits with your child's healthcare provider.

What Does Mental Health Recovery for Children Look Like?

Mental health recovery isn't static. It's an ongoing, fluid process without a specific destination. Because mental illness isn't curable, it's likely your child will need to learn to manage their symptoms and cope with stress on an ongoing basis.

That said, here are some signs that your child is on the right track.

Ability to identify emotions: Understanding and labeling emotions is an important part of mental health recovery. When a child can recognize how they feel, they can take steps to identify behaviors to cope with that feeling.

Positive peer support: Children who value their emotional well-being and self-esteem pick friends who make them feel good about themselves. Likewise, they strive to be a good friend to others.

Evidence of using positive coping skills: While nobody copes perfectly all the time, it's a good sign if you see your child engaging in healthy activities like journaling, drawing, or even taking deep breaths.

Initiative to ask for help: Consider it healthy if your child feels safe coming to you for support. That means they trust you and value your guidance during times of need.

Engagement in treatment: Regardless of their specific situation, it's a good sign if your child seems motivated in their treatment. Keep in mind this level of engagement may ebb and flow based on your child's circumstances.

Ability to self-reflect: This skill is more evident in adolescents than in younger children. But if your child shows insight into their triggers, habits, or patterns, that's a good sign. It means they are gaining more awareness of who they are- and what they want to potentially change.

Final Thoughts

It's normal to be worried about your child's emotions. But try to focus on being a supportive ally. Even if they seem distant or upset, your child relies on you for safety and comfort.

Parenting can be challenging, but you don't have to struggle alone. At Mental Health Transitions, we help children, adults, and families understand and overcome mental illness. We are here to support you. Contact us today to learn more!

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