Mental health conditions in children: A parent's guide

SIgns and symptoms that your child might need to see a professional.
SIgns and symptoms that your child might need to see a professional.

Mental illness affects children as much as it affects adults.

It is common and it is treatable, however, most parents miss the signs in children because they assume it’s a passing growth stage. 

And while some parents recognise the difference in behaviour, conditions tend to go untreated due to the stigma attached to mental illness and the effects of the medication.

However, if left untreated, mental health problems can affect children’s functioning at home, school and in the community. Sadly, untreated disorders leave children at an increased risk of school failure, ending up in jail, and even suicide.

Must read: 'It's not because of what a parent is doing': Global study finds autism is 80% more likely to be inherited

Below are signs and symptoms that your child might need to see a professional:

  • Drop in school performance
  • Drastic mood changes (affecting relationships at school and at home)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Constant disobedience and misbehaviour
  • Hyperactivity or fidgeting
  • Regression (bed wetting, throwing tantrums, becoming clingy)
  • Frequent complaints of physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Constant worry or anxiety (watch out for overwhelming fear for no reason)
  • No interest in living and showing little concern for their own safety (they may make comments like “I wish I wasn’t alive” or “I wish I could sleep forever”)

Many parents tend to blame themselves for their children’s mental health problems however, the reality is that there’s no single definitive cause. Causes can range from biological factors like a chemical imbalance in the brain to environmental factors like extreme bullying, poverty and abuse.

Also read: 'I really wish more people will try to understand our kids': Mom shares her experience of raising a child with Asperger’s

Most common childhood mental health disorders 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Children with autism have trouble communicating. They have trouble understanding what other people think and feel.

This makes it very hard for them to express themselves either with words or through gestures, facial expressions, and touch.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

ADHD can be classified into three different types:

  • Hyperactive/impulsive type: Children with this type show signs of hyperactivity and the need to move constantly, as well as displaying impulsive behaviour. They do not show signs of distraction or inattention.
  • Inattentive type: Formerly called attention deficit disorder (ADD). These children show enough symptoms of inattention (or distractibility) but aren’t hyperactive or impulsive.
  • Combined type: These children have symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders in children and teens cause serious changes in eating habits that can lead to major, even life-threatening health problems.

These eating disorders can be classified into three kinds:

  • Anorexia: a condition in which a child refuses to eat adequate calories out of an intense and irrational fear of becoming fat.
  • Bulimia: a condition in which a child grossly overeats (binging) and then purges the food by vomiting or using laxatives to prevent weight gain.
  • Binge eating: a condition in which a child may gorge rapidly on food, but without purging.

Also read: Is your child struggling in an English-medium school? It may not be the language barrier


Children who suffer from depression show signs of sadness that becomes persistent, or interferes with normal social activities, interests, schoolwork, or family life.


Kids with anxiety worry almost everyday and about lots of things. There are different kinds of anxiety, we list them below:

Separation anxiety

If separation anxiety is excessive enough to interfere with normal activities like school and friendships, and lasts for months rather than days, it may be a sign of separation anxiety disorder. 

Social anxiety 

With social anxiety, extreme shyness, self-consciousness, and fears of embarrassment get in the way of a child’s life. Instead of enjoying social activities, they might dread them — and avoid some of them altogether.

Specific phobia

Children with a specific phobia have an excessive and uncontrollable fear of an object or situation that triggers so much anxiety it disrupts normal activities.

Treatment options 

Treatment for mental health problems in children can range from only needing psychotherapy (talking through it) to needing medication.

The only way to know what treatment is necessary for your child is to seek professional help. It is advisable to get a proper diagnosis from a registered healthcare professional instead of analysing symptoms and doing self-diagnosis.

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