Dominion Hospital - March 20, 2019

Knowing the warning signs and when to take action

As parents, keeping our children safe and happy is job #1. So when they have a fever, we go to the doctor. When they break a bone, we take them to the ER. But sometimes the problem isn't so simple to identify — or fix. This is certainly the case when it comes to mental health in kids.

It may seem shocking, but nearly one in five children has a mental illness. And for many of them, it greatly impacts their daily lives. However, children are less likely to receive mental health treatment than adults. Too often, symptoms are explained away as being "just a phase" — that they'll grow out of their emotional problems.

What kind of mental health issues can a child have?

Children can struggle with the same mental illnesses as adults, including:

  • Eating disorders
  • Mood disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

While parents these days may be more attuned to symptoms indicating ADHD or autism, it's still critical to observe and take all warning signs into account when trying to determine the underlying issue.

What warning signs should I look for?

The signs of mental illness can be different in children than adults, and can vary by age and type of illness. Mental health issues can appear early — as early as preschool years or even infancy.

Be on the lookout for the following symptoms:

  • Mood changes: severe mood swings, feelings of sadness.
  • Intense feelings: being overwhelmingly worried or fearful.
  • Behavior changes: drastic changes in behavior or personality, including dangerous or out-of-control behavior.
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares.
  • Avoidance of friends and family.
  • Physical symptoms: headaches and stomachaches that have no medical cause.
  • Difficulty concentrating or sitting still.
  • Poor school performance.
  • Weight changes: sudden loss of (or increase in) appetite, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives.
  • Bullying other children.

How can I help my child after diagnosis?

It's completely normal to feel scared, frustrated or angry as you watch your child suffer from a mental illness. Make sure you both take care of yourself and do what you can to help your child navigate this new diagnosis.

To make sure your child succeeds in school, partner with their teachers, administrators and the school counselor to ensure they have the tools and plans in place to meet your child's needs.

At the end of the day, you are your child's biggest advocate and partner. If you suspect something is wrong, seek medical help. Dominion Hospital, serving Northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region, offers comprehensive services to identify and treat the difficult issues facing teens ages 13 to 17. Those 18 years and older are referred to our adult program. You can contact one of our first-step counselors 24/7 at (703) 538-2872.