With all the focus on mental health in the news, you may have wondered how to know if your child is mentally ill. Until you receive confirmation from a mental health professional, try not to draw any conclusions. This article does not provide criteria for diagnosis. Instead, it covers potential red flags that may warrant further investigation.
1. You Sense Something Is Wrong
Dr. Virginia Boga, a clinical psychologist in New York, tells Parentology, “The signs of mental illness can be different depending on the diagnosis, but one common theme is that parents feel something is wrong.”
2. Children Behave Differently Than Peers
Boga further explains that one of the top reasons that parents suspect something is amiss is when the child may not behave like other children his or her age. There is nothing wrong with being different, but parents should take note of how these differences continue to unfold.
3. Child Displays Intense Irritability
Boga adds that irritability is a common symptom of mental illness. It is often also one of the most terrifying behaviors for parents to witness, especially if there are small pets, elderly people, or younger children in the home.
4. Missed Milestones and Delays
Delayed development compared to a kid’s peers is one difference that may cause legitimate concern. According to Dr. Courtney Bolton, a psychologist and parenting expert, “For younger children, the most common indication of a concern is missed milestones and delays.”
5. Difficulty Forming Attachments
Some children are naturally more charismatic than others, causing other children to flock to them. Some are not, and this is natural. However, Bolton notes that sometimes hyperactivity, depression, and anxiety can make it difficult for children to make or keep friends.
6. Unexplained Behavioral Shifts
Bolton also states that when it comes to older children, shifts in behavior with no reasonable explanation may signal a problem. Thus, signs such as losing friends, giving up formerly enjoyable activities, and underperforming at school should grab a parent’s attention.
7. Child Struggles with Everyday Tasks
Delayed development and irritability can lead to difficulties in completing everyday tasks. According to Dr. Sherrie Campbell, a clinical psychologist, a big red flag is a child’s inability to function while carrying out normal activities, such as chores, attending school, or exercising basic self-control.
8. Violence Against Family Pets
Some parents excuse this in boys as playing rough or an unfortunate accident. According to the US Department of Justice, torturing, maiming, and murdering family pets precedes violent crime with human victims almost every time.
9. Substance Use and Abuse
When teen experimentation involves controlled substances, it is most unfortunate. This can lead to lifelong addictions. The Mayo Clinic warns that substance abuse may also signal a child’s difficulties with self-regulating emotions.
10. Drastic Restrictions on Family Behavior
Finally, Bolton notes that sometimes it is parents who make drastic changes. They may adjust so much to avoid violent outbursts or tearful breakdowns that they convince themselves the child is fine. Thus, parents should also note changes to their own behaviors and routines.
The Bottom Line
If your child ticks off several of the red flags above, seek professional advice. However, it is also important to consider the possibility that your child may act out for attention. This is a separate issue that a family psychologist may also assist with.
10 Ways to Know if Your Child Is Mentally Ill — Sources
Virginia Boga, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist
Courtney Bolton Ph.D., Weldon
Dr. Sherrie Campbell, But It’s Your Family
U.S. Department of Justice: Animal Cruelty: A Serious Crime Leading to Horrific Outcomes
Mayo Clinic: Mental Illness in Children: Know the Signs