Behavioral health problems in children can offer challenges which are exclusive to the age range. Their brains are fundamentally different than those in adults, and their identity is still in limbo. Furthermore, determining that a child indeed has a mental illness can be difficult due to the universally erratic nature of their behavior and its rapid state of flux. One can develop at any time; as stated by the American Psychological Association, a child’s brain grows in spurts roughly corresponding to Piaget’s stages of development. These spurts occur on average between birth and the age of four, eight to nine, and adolescence. Periods of rapid growth such as these are essentially windows for laying a psychological foundation—whether it be beneficial or detrimental.
The developing brain is shaped by genes and experiences. A child’s mind is more susceptible to change in response to experience. They are highly plastic, actively settling into the architecture which will affect all future behavior and learning. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child reports that a common example of problematic development leading to disparities in learning and behavior can be caused by something as simple as unresponsive caregivers. The child learns—a physical process wherein neuronal “pathways” are either formed or reinforced—that their queries and interactions with other people do not yield reliable responses. This is very different than, say, learning that a major theme in Orwell’s Animal Farm is the societal tendency towards class structure. It is more like Pavlov’s dogs involuntarily salivating when they hear a bell. The impression is deep.
Both experientially and genetically rooted problems can emerge quietly. The white noise that is a typical child’s behavior acts as camouflage. It begins with diagnosing a problem.
Children are not immune from the mental conditions which manifest in adults. They can have anxiety disorders (OCD, PTSD, social phobia), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, eating disorders, mood disorders (depression and bipolar), and even the more chronic illnesses like schizophrenia.
Don’t try and label a disorder yourself. Look for general warning signs, and if they are seen consult a doctor. The Mayo Clinic informs that the signs of a problem can be intense mood changes, withdrawal that lasts longer than two weeks, feelings of overwhelming fear (with no rational cause), drastic changes in personality, difficulty concentrating, unexplained weight loss, self-harm, and substance abuse. Also check for physical symptoms like constant headaches or stomachaches.
If you suspect that your child has a mental health condition, take them to their doctor and describe the behavior which has lead you to that belief. Since there are no straightforward tests for diagnoses like these, the doctor might recommend your child be seen by a specialist.
A specialist (someone whose expertise is in mental health) will rule out possible causes for your child’s behavior which are not disease-states of the brain. They might ask you about the child’s development, general history, and other perceptions of the behavior as had by teachers or friends. And of course, if the child’s ability to articulate his/her thoughts is advanced enough, the specialist will use their account.
Once the problem is pinned down, the child might receive various forms of talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. The mental health provider might recommend medication, which could be stimulants, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, or mood stabilizers. A combinatorial approach may be used as well. Be sure to educate yourself on all the risks and benefits which might come from any approach.
There are countless anecdotes and case studies which support alternative treatments. If you think that your child could benefit from trying an alternative treatment, discuss it with a specialist first to ensure no contraindications and low risk. They will likely inform you of the lack of rigorous scientific evidence (or else they’d have recommended it first), and give their blessing in hopes that the child responds well and can therefore avoid any medicinal side effects.
Lastly, your role as parent or caregiver lands you in an important position. Ask the specialist about ways you can interact with your child to help them cope. Be patient, consider joining a community support group, relax and have fun with them.