Learn How to Identify if Your Child is Struggling With a Mental, Behavioral or Developmental Disorder

October 12, 2021

Article by: Ethan Steever, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer and Licensed Psychologist
Willow Springs Treatment Center
Affiliated with Northern Nevada Medical Center
Part 1 of 2

father and two daughtersThe mental health of our children is very important especially as we continue navigating the pandemic. Parents should be aware of what to look for if they feel their child is struggling emotionally. A pediatrician or family medicine provider can identify if a child has reached developmental and emotional milestones and subsequently refer to a specialist, if needed. Additionally, parents should foster an environment that helps their child learn healthy social skills and coping techniques for when there are problems or changes in their life.

The CDC reports that 1 in 6 children aged 2 to 8 years has a mental, behavioral or developmental disorder. When it comes to childhood disorders, nearly any diagnosis that you would find in an adult can be identified in children. The most common diagnoses in children are depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and ADHD.

How to Identify a Mental Health Disorder in Your Child

The mental health symptoms of children vary significantly depending upon the diagnosis involved. Ask yourself these questions to early identify if your child needs behavioral support. This list is not all-inclusive and other behaviors may be reported. We encourage parents to identify unique changes in their child and consult with a professional if they notice the behaviors are worsening.

  1. Is your child showing a sudden or noticeable change in their behavior, mood or level of anxiety and worry?
  2. Has the child’s appetite significantly changed (e.g. overeating, undereating, inconsistency with eating that strays from the normal)?
  3. Has your child’s sleep patterns altered, including lack of sleep or being overly tired?
  4. Is your child having a hard time paying attention?
  5. Does your child feel sad, hopeless or irritable often?
  6. Has your child’s interest in school, play or relationships changed?
  7. Is your child showing any signs of self-destructive or self-injury behavior?

Teaching Your Child to Cope During a Crisis

The goal of any parent is to keep their child safe and as we monitor our health during the pandemic, it is important to keep a close eye on any behavioral changes. Although not a lot of data is available yet, we have seen an increase in the rates of depression, anxiety and trauma among children.

Parents should remain vigilant and look for signs that their child is struggling. Just as one can have post-traumatic stress disorder from trauma or disaster, COVID-19 is an event that can cause significant stress on a child. The pandemic can be harder on children because they understand less about the situation, there is less control over their environment, and they may not have learned coping skills for long-term crises. Nonetheless, parents can empower their children through conversation and understanding.

I recommend talking to your child regularly to hear their concerns and fears and better understand how they feel. If your child has a safe and trusted adult to talk to, they will have more opportunities to be honest about their emotions. Additionally, if your child identifies with a teacher or coach, this person can serve as a positive advocate. Here are a few basic tips to create a positive support structure for your child during any type of crisis.

Quick Tips for Coping During a Crisis

  1. Encourage two-way conversation. Nothing is more important than allowing your child to talk through difficult times. This will help your child feel valued and supported, even when the conversation is difficult.
  2. Limit media exposure. Although there are many positive aspects to learning about our world through media, reducing exposure to harmful messages will result in less stress on your child.
  3. Spend quality time with your child. Find opportunities to spend time with your child through play, exercise or other activities. Use the time to grow your relationship and listen to your child’s feedback about their concerns.
  4. Build security by following a routine. Children thrive and feel safer by knowing what to expect. Maintain a routine such as Sunday dinner, family walks or other common practices in your household. Your child will inherently feel comfortable with a routine that they have come to know.
  5. Reinforce healthy activities. Encourage your child to eat healthy, integrate exercise and play daily, and drink plenty of water. These simple actions will help your child develop physically.