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Understanding Mental Illness in Children vs. Adults

A Towson psychiatrist examines mental health disorders in children and adolescents.

Parenthood can be challenging. As a parent, you only want the best for your child. But sometimes, you will encounter difficult obstacles that seem impossible to overcome. Maybe your child has been throwing way more tantrums than usual. Or they seem to have trouble staying still. Determining whether these are normal childhood behaviors or if they could be signs of something more serious is not always easy. 

In our latest blog post, a Towson psychiatrist examines mental illness in children and adolescents. We will review:

  • Signs of mental illness in children
  • Common mental health problems in children
  • Possible causes behind these illnesses
  • Tips and resources for raising a child with a mental health disorder

Read on to learn how you can spot and treat mental health issues in children now.

Mental Illness in Children vs. Adults

A Towson psychiatrist discusses symptoms of mental illness in children versus adults.

counselor talking to young child
Young children to teenagers can experience mental health issues like depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD. 

When assessing a child’s mental health, a physician typically considers several factors:

  • A child’s ability to reach certain emotional and developmental milestones
  • Their ability to communicate and socialize in a healthy manner
  • How a child copes during difficult situations

If you notice a severe change in your child’s behavior that disrupts their ability to perform everyday activities, they may have a mental disorder. That said, mental health is not merely the absence of a mental illness. Different children with the same condition may differ in their development and coping abilities. Children who aren’t diagnosed with a disorder may still experience challenges with their mental and emotional health. 

Signs of Mental Health Issues in Children

Symptoms of mental health issues in children may differ in age, but common signs of a mental health problem include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness lasting over two weeks
  • Withdrawing or avoiding social situations
  • Talking about wanting to hurt themselves
  • Dramatic changes in behavior and mood
  • A drop in academic performance
  • Extreme irritability and angry outbursts

Causes and Types of Mental Health Disorders in Adolescents

There are many possible reasons behind your child’s behavioral changes. Genetics and chemical imbalances in the brain can increase your child’s risk of developing a mental illness. If your child has undergone severe psychological trauma like physical abuse or neglect, they are more likely to develop mental health issues. 

Disorders that can develop during one’s youth include:

  • ADHD
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • PTSD
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anxiety disorders like social anxiety and OCD

Treatments for Children with Mental Illness

Children can receive medication for certain illnesses, but that isn’t their only treatment option.

girl drawing on chalkboard next to psychologist
Individual therapy sessions and family counseling may help a child struggling with a mental illness.

If you believe your child might have a mental health condition, you should schedule an appointment with their pediatrician. You can describe the behaviors that are alarming you. It may also be beneficial to reach out to your child’s teachers and see if they also noticed any changes in their behavior. 

Your child’s pediatrician may then refer you to a specialist such as a child psychologist or clinical social worker. This mental health professional will then perform a thorough evaluation to make an official diagnosis. However, diagnosing mental illness in children can be challenging as they might have trouble expressing their feelings. As a result, the doctor might change or adjust this diagnosis over time.

Taking Care of a Child with a Mental Health Disorder

There are numerous ways you can help improve your child’s mental health.

child playing with blocks next to mother
As you take care of your child, you need to remember to look after your own mental health.

Therapy

If your child is exhibiting behavioral problems, your doctor might recommend behavior therapy. During therapy sessions, a professional will set different behavior goals for your child and reinforce them using a basic reward and consequence system. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a popular method for treating disorders such as depression and anxiety. 

Medication

The severity of your child’s mental illness will play a significant role in whether or not their doctor prescribes medication for them. Prozac has proven to be an effective treatment for childhood depression. Several SSRIs have also been approved for pediatric use. If your child does go on medication, you will need to closely monitor them for signs of improvement or adverse side effects. 


When taking care of a child with a mental illness, it can be easy to forget about your own mental well-being. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you feel you are struggling. Caring for your own mental well-being can serve as a healthy model for your child. 

Are you thinking about scheduling a therapy session with a Towson psychiatrist? The Psych Associates of Maryland can give you the support and help you need. Contact us today for more information!

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