Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Children You Need to Know

None of us want to think of our sweet babies struggling with something we can’t see or measure. But it happens, and sometimes they aren’t aware of the changes they are facing. Children will have a more difficult time expressing symptoms of a possible mental illness. These signs can often show up as defiance or outbursts, rather than stereotypical mental illness symptoms.

As you all know, I am a huge advocate for mental health, and my advocacy doesn’t just cover adults. As a child, there came a point in my life where it would have been largely beneficial for me to receive mental health treatment. Yet, I didn’t. Part of the reason for this was and still is, due to stigma. No one wants to admit that their child has a mental illness, or has been traumatized for that matter. There is a humiliation is seeking treatment of mental illness, and it is doing nothing but harming us all. Mental illness, while not a true physical disorder, can be fatal if left undiagnosed and untreated.

On the same token, you don’t want to automatically assume that your child has a mental illness just because they are acting out. Children go through periods in life where their body is changing, their voice may be changing, they are learning new things that may make them uncomfortable. And it is difficult, as a child, to organize the thoughts they may have and verbalize any questions or issues they are facing. This is why we, as parents, have to be vigilant and watch for signs that there may be something bigger happening with them.

Common Mental Illness Diagnoses in Children

We all know that ADHD is a common diagnosis, and I feel that part of the reason this diagnosis has become more common is due to underlying issues. People aren’t aware of mental illness symptoms, or even the possibility that a child could be developing a mental illness. These symptoms, in children, may not appear the same as they do in adults. As I said, the symptoms may often appear as a lack of focus and an increase in defiance. Which can commonly be thought of as ADHD or even Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD).

There are other disorders that can appear in children though, and these are some of them:

Eating Disorders
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Auditory Processing Disorder
Oppositional Defiant Disorder
Intermittent Explosive Disorder
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

You can also find more information through the Child Mind Institute, as well as get answers to questions you may have or check your children’s behavior with their Symptom Checker.

Behaviors You Should Keep an Eye on and Further Explore

  • Angry outbursts
  • Inflicting harm on themselves or others
  • Feelings of sadness or withdrawing from regular activities -This would be a concern if the behavior lasts more than a couple of days. It is common for us to feel withdrawn when we’ve been let down or disappointed, and it’s normal for that feeling to continue for a couple of days.
  • Extreme worries or fears that interrupt regular activities, or make social activities difficult
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Intense mood swings that affect relationships
  • Not eating, loss of appetite
  • Major behavior or personality changes
  • Changes in sleeping behaviors
  • Changes in school performance
  • Recurring nightmares
  • Self-injury or threat of self-harm
  • Aggression

This list is not all-inclusive, and noticing some of these signs does not always signify a disorder. But it is better to be safe, than sorry. When multiple of these signs are showing in your child, I recommend seeking professional help.

Most often this process will begin through your child’s pediatrician. They can direct you to the proper care in your area. You can also go here to find a psychologist in your area.

None of us want to think our sweet babies are struggling with something we can't see or measure. But sometimes it happens. Childhood mental illness often shows signs such as anger or tantrums. Would you recognize the signs?

What Could be the Cause of a Mental Illness in my Child

Children are not as accustomed to life stressors as we are. They handle things differently and don’t always have the knowledge or ability to share their troubles with an adult. Children don’t always know that what they are feeling needs to be addressed, or may even be embarrassed by their feelings. Something that may seem trivial to us as a parent, can be life altering for a child.

Some areas/struggles that could cause difficulties for a child are:

  • Family financial problems
  • Moving to a new home
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Moving to a new school
  • Loss of friends (through death or otherwise)
  • Bullying
  • Parental substance abuse
  • Parental fighting/arguing
  • Loss of a pet
  • & more

Some of these stressors can also cause trauma to a child, which can lead to worsening conditions and withdrawal from parents. As a survivor of childhood trauma, I know the lifelong damage that can be done in certain conditions. I also know that had I gotten help as a child, my coping skills today would be 1000% better than they are right now. I urge you as parents to educate yourselves more in the area of mental health and mental illness for the sake of your children. As I said before, what may seem like something small to you could be huge to your child.

For more information on childhood trauma, visit Child Mind Institute online.

The Honest to God Truth

I’m going to tell you one of the reasons I am sharing this with you, and it’s not the fact that I wish I received help as a child. God’s honest truth is that I truly believe I may have passed on my mental illness to my son. I wish this were not the case, but I feel it is the truth. He has strange fears of things he has never experienced, nor will he ever most likely. He has constant breakdowns over the simplest tasks. Aiden struggles to explain his feelings to me and can become aggressive and angry in a matter of seconds, and minutes later is extremely calm and acts as if there were no outburst.

This part of motherhood is no fun. His outbursts and misunderstood feelings trigger my anxiety, which causes me to lash out, which triggers my depression. I am no longer alone in my cycle, and I hate to say that my son triggers my illness, but it is the truth. I want him to get the help he needs, and maybe I am overreacting and he is A-Okay! but I’d rather know for a fact that let it get to the point where it is a life-long battle for him.

What Can You Do?

Mama’s, I know it’s difficult to admit that your child may be struggling mentally and emotionally, but the very best thing you can do for them is reaching out to a professional for another opinion. Your pediatrician will be able to refer you to the proper place, and in some cases can even do a general assessment of the child’s mental state. It is important to validate your child’s feelings in this situation.

I’d suggest to not overlook any treatment option that may be available to you. Aside from in-person, face-to-face counseling your child, depending on his/her age, may be a candidate for online therapy or phone therapy.

Other options you can try with your child:

  • Journaling can be a great way for your child to express their feelings.
  • Cycle through emotion words with them and have them explain how they feel using new words.
  • Create an emotions toolbox that teaches your child to manage tough emotions.
  • Talk with teachers and guidance counselors to see if there have been issues at school.
  • Try some self-care practices with your child.
  • If parenting arguments and struggles are the reason for your child’s current issue, it may be important to seek counseling for your marriage/relationship. Not only will this allow you to work on your relationship problems in a healthy way, but it will also allow your child to learn from example and maybe have a better home life.
  • There is an App available called Headspace and you can pay for the child version, which is a great companion to other treatment options


American Psychiatric Association Foundation – Warning Signs of Mental Illness

Child Mind Institute – 11 Simple Signs a Child May Have a Psychiatric Disorder

American Psychological Association – Identifying signs of stress in your children and teens

Child Mind Institute – What to Do (and Not Do) When Children are Anxious

Child Mind Institute – Signs of Trauma in Children

National Institute of Mental Health – Treatment with Children of Mental Illness

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