If you’re a parent, caregiver or individual impacting the life of a child, your ultimate goal is their highest attainment of happiness and success. We strive to monitor their physical health, encourage high academic performance and serve as a guide for their behavior, which all rolls into their evolution into a well-rounded adult. If these are the goals for our children, data from the past decade indicates that we’re actually a piece of a much larger puzzle. Research leads us to understand how stable mental health is a critical foundation for our children – It’s the missing puzzle piece when it comes to improved quality of life, educational and economic attainment, relationship building and life expectancy.
Recent data from the National Institute of Mental Health, the Child Mind Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us approximately 20 percent of children struggle significantly with mental health disorders. Let’s compare some numbers – 8.2 percent of children suffer from asthma and .02 percent from diabetes, so 20 percent is overwhelming. This means 1 in 5 children and teenagers. Imagine – 2 kids on the basketball team, 1 kid on the softball team and a handful of kids in each classroom across the nation. Today, suicide ranks as the second leading cause of death for children between 15-24 years of age. Teenagers and adolescents are known to be the most stressed out population in America. These statistics are saddening. However, with knowledge and information, we have so much potential to address this last missing puzzle piece. We can piece together the entire puzzle through awareness, and allow our children to flourish and create dynamic changes in their lives.
We’ve learned over half of adults diagnosed with a mental illness could’ve been properly identified by age 14. Early intervention is crucial when it comes to our children’s quality of life, immediately and into adulthood. If we use awareness to our advantage, we can mitigate negative habits, limit potential barriers and open more doors for our children.
On one hand, I shake my head and wonder – why? Our children have access to everything, making life so much easier. No bills to pay. No dial-up tones. No commercials to sit through. No long road trips without movies or music. On the other hand, I find myself wishing for a book. I wish there was a parenting book with similar guidelines and rules as a cookbook would. Unfortunately, the truth for escalating mental health issues is not so simple. It’s woven in a complex web of variables including genetics, environment, culture, societal structure, mindset, academic pressure and electronic technology, to name a few. Nevertheless, the challenge to help sits in our lap. As a community, we must find ways to offer opportunities to grab every piece of the puzzle, unleashing full potential for our children.
Thankfully, resources are out there including many for parents, including concerning signs and symptoms for adolescent mental health disorders:
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
- American Academy of Pediatrics (healthychildren.org)
- Child Mind Institute
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Some of the signs and symptoms include, but are not limited to:
- Excessive fear, persistent worry
- Resistance to activities, situations, going new places, doing new things
- Defensive, disrespectful or selfish behavior
- Need for continual reassurance
- Struggles with sleep, changes in sleep pattern
- Irritability, mood swings or emotional outbursts
- Self-consciousness, sensitive to criticism
- Changes in appetite, weight loss or weight gain
- Headaches, stomach aches, other physical aches and pains
- Avoidance of school
- Struggling relationships with friends or family
- Withdrawal from friends or activities
- Sad appearance, lack of enjoyment
- Distracted, poor concentration
- Hyperactive, fidgety nature
- Poor/declining school performance
- Lack of overall motivation
- Bullying, lashing out physically
- Substance abuse, breaking of laws
- Running away from a situation or hiding
- Frequent temper tantrums
These lists are broad, adding confusion when symptoms look similar to common childhood behaviors that will occur at one time or another. These signs will change just as children do when they develop from toddlers to adolescents. Most of the time, emotions are in charge when children exhibit negative behaviors. If the child calms down and re-groups, they might have the opportunity to respond more wisely. This takes development and certain learned skills. As adults, we also often find ourselves struggling to identify what we’re feeling, why we’re feeling it and why we respond the way we do. For the most part, we’re better off than children. Poor behaviors can often become indicative of anxiety or fear for adolescents, as opposed to simple selfishness and stubbornness. In hand, parents can often misinterpret and dole out consequences missing the true root of the problem instead of leading to a resolution.
The key is to notice when behaviors are disrupting to the life of the child or family. Play detective, take notice of their behavioral patterns and ask questions. Is it occurring in particular situations? Is it related to something extracurricular? Does it happen routinely? Is it improving?
So now what? How do we identify a concern needing more investigation? I like to look at the question at hand in relationship to a bull’s eye. This bull’s eye represents the very typical behavior that can be expected for a particular age. The further the behavior falls from the bull’s eye, the more important it’ll be to look into with more detail. If you’re noting behaviors outside of the bull’s eye, they could still be normal for your child, or might even point in a completely different direction such as a sleep disorder. Regardless, if the behavior is not improving it warrants monitoring. If it alerts your parent radar, it’s important to discuss with your child’s pediatrician or advance practice provider. We can all learn more, and we can all consider this missing puzzle piece when supporting our children.
Your intervention could change the trajectory of a life.
Each year, National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day seeks to raise awareness about the importance of children’s mental health and show that positive mental health is essential to a child’s healthy development.