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How To Recognize The Signs Of Mental Health Issues In Your Kids

There are certain red flags to watch out for.

With rising rates of anxiety, depression, ADHD and other mental illnesses, parents are left wondering if their squirming toddler is just restless, or showing signs of ADHD. Is their preschooler's fear of the dark a sign of an underlying anxiety disorder, or is this just drama created to help land a place in mom and dad's bed? And what about teen behaviour? They can all seem somewhat "abnormal" to parents as some point, can't they?

Let me just say that I am thrilled that society is talking about mental health, being more proactive about eliminating the stigma, and working to make more resources available to the public. This is progress!

However, one of the pitfalls of bringing mental health to the top of everyone's mind is that it has also created a bit of paranoia in well-meaning parents. After all, isn't it our prerogative to worry about our kids? Now we have a new place to focus our attention and worry. Now we ask ourselves the question: "Is my kid diagnosable?"

First, let's correct how we conceptualize a child's mental health. Most people have dualistic thinking which categorize our children into one of two buckets: they are either mentally healthy or mentally ill. Instead, I encourage you to adopt a new way of conceptualizing mental health by seeing it as something that has qualities which fall along a continuum.

This is similar to how we think about our physical health. Some people are Olympic athletes, and others are couch potatoes. With mental health then, the continuum might have master meditators at one end, and schizophrenic at the other. Thankfully most of us are somewhere in between!

So, this begs the question: when are our children "disordered" enough to meet the criteria for a label on the continuum? It largely depends on who is measuring, and where they have decided to draw the line.

This topic has become very political lately, because yes, the line keeps moving! It takes less symptoms and less severity to make a diagnosis than in previous years.

Of course, this doesn't mean we should ignore odd or maladaptive behaviour in our children. All our concerns should be addressed. So, heightened awareness and diagnoses aside, here are the important red flags you should watch for:

Your Kid Can't Manage The Demands Of Daily Life:

When our children are struggling to learn in the classroom, or can't interact appropriately with peers and authority figures, something is amiss. All people can feel sad or anxious at times, or, on the other hand, struggle in school, and this isn't a sign of any deficiency.

But, if we are so sad or so anxious we can't manage our daily tasks, we have moved down the mental health continuum into the "interference zone."

Changes In Baseline Behaviours:

Other flags to watch for are changes in behaviours from how you normally experience your child. For example, there are lots of kids who don't eat very much, but, if your once healthy eater is pushing food around their plate instead of devouring supper, something might be up.

Same goes for sleep. If your good sleeper is waking up in the middle of the night, having frequent nightmares, or opting to crash into bed early, you should make a note that this is a change from their usual pattern.

This goes for social behaviours as well. If they withdraw into their rooms instead of hanging out with the family as they once did, if they stop socializing with friends, or if they change friend groups unexpectedly, this is worth noting. Trust your gut — all noticeable change is noteworthy.

New Coping Behaviours:

When we struggle emotionally we seek to avoid the suffering. This could be as simple as twirling hair for comfort or chewing nails. But, it could also be in the form of school avoidance, excessive gaming, reaching for alcohol or pot to numb suffering, or cutting to ease feelings of disassociation.

What Next:

Trust your gut and err on the side of caution. If you see these signs it's time to involve a professional.

Depending on who you see, you will get different answers and be pointed in different directions. As an Adlerian family counsellor, my lens on behaviour is informed by a systems approach that treats all mental illness from a holistic perspective. A psychiatrist, on the other hand, will frame the issue through a more medical lens, and so on.

It doesn't mean each view is contradictory, but it does mean a parent should get a few perspectives. Parents should know the difference between the expertise of each mental health professional, and choose which one they feel is best for their child.

I recommend you plan to include several professionals who make a good team and who want to work with each other to help your child. Parents need to manage all these professionals in a way that allows them to feel supported and empowered.

A team might include the teacher, your family doctor, a therapist, and a naturopath, for example, or a school psychologist, a doctor of functional medicine, and an osteopath.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, stop. Take a deep breath, and continue with an attitude of curiosity and investigation. You got this.

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