Mental illness is notoriously difficult to detect. Often the symptoms—behavioral rather than physical—are only rarely seen. This is all the more true, and all the more tragic, in young patients. But when even normal behavior can vary significantly from child to child and from day to day, it’s not always easy to spot signs of mental illness in young children.
It does exist, however. While some conditions don’t appear—or make themselves known—until late teens or older, there are some conditions that can occur in children, and can be found if you know what to look for. Mental illnesses that are common in children include anxiety disorders, disruptive behavior, learning disorders, and attention deficit; depression and schizophrenia can also be diagnosed in preteens and teenagers in many cases. Be on the lookout for mood or behavior changes, difficulty concentrating, overwhelming fear with no obvious cause, or any sort of sudden change in conduct, habits, or school performance. However, ordinary teenage, or even pre-teen, independence and boundary-testing aren’t necessarily indicative of a problem.
Untreated mental illness is a problem at any age; in children, there’s the additional issue of the impact it has on academic performance and socialization. Without proper treatment, mentally ill children are more likely to drop out of school, have disciplinary issues in school, or develop substance abuse problems. Moreover, the behavioral patterns people fall into and maladaptive coping mechanisms they develop are more malleable in childhood; early treatment can help avoid these problems rather than the more difficult task of fixing them in adulthood.
Treatment doesn’t have to mean psychotherapy, and it doesn’t have to mean drugs. Many parents are understandably wary of giving their developing children medications that affect the mind. While this is sometimes necessary, in many cases other options are available. Therapy or counseling, either individually with a professional or with peers in a group environment, can often help them learn to manage the condition.