Our fantasies about childhood include images of freedom from responsibility, long summer vacations, bike riding, knee-skinning and being in a perpetual state of wonder about the world. Most of us don’t equate childhood with illness, even less so with mental illness. But just as physical diseases like cancer, diabetes, and epilepsy can occur in children, so too can psychological maladies that can create suffering and disability for the child.
Stay Tuned in to Kids’ Moods and Behaviors
Depression, anxiety disorders, obssessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder are no longer diagnoses used only for the fully grown. Current data from the National Institute on Mental Health indicate that, at any one time, 20 percent of children will have been diagnosed with a mental disorder in the past year. This reality supports the need and responsibility of parents and caregivers to attend to their chidlren’s mental health needs with as much care and diligence as we do their medical and dental needs. Most parents schedule routine doctor, dentist and vision screenings for their kids, often on a yearly or more frequent basis. Rarely do we think of mental health as needing the same kind of oversight. I’m not suggesting that we drag our kids to a psychiatrist for an “alls-clear” every year. But staying tuned in to ways that kids communicate their struggles or distress is crucial to being able to intervene in a timely and effective manner. For example, children struggling with depression or anxiety symptoms may often exhibit somatic symptoms. ADD can be difficult to acknowledge if a chld isn’t exhibiting the hyperactivity component, but has been labeled as a daydreamer or seems lost in his own world sometimes. Kids don’t always use verbal means to communicate their upset; we need to look for body and behavioral cues as well. If your child routinely complains of physical ailments, or demonstrates any changes in behavior that are strange, out of character or distressing to her, you or others close to your child, further investigation may be warranted. A physical exam by a pediatrician to rule out illness or organic disease is the first step. But if the complaints continue, a session or two with a qualified child mental health specialist may
help uncover an underlying trauma or psychological disorder that is preventing the child from functioning at his best.
Our Kids Trust Us to Help Them
Not all mental illness requires medication, nor does it necessarily include long stretches of psychotherapy. Finding experienced professionals, often available by referral from the child’s pediatrician, who can assess and treat the child and even possibly the parents and family, is key to restoring and enhancing our child’s mental health. It’s our responsibility as the rearers and protectors of children to care for their whole selves, body, spirit and mind.