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Advocating for your child’s mental health

As a child grows and develops through childhood and into adolescence, some parents may notice the development of behaviors indicative of a mental health challenge or illness. While many of the concerns you have may just be part of the transition into becoming a teenager, warning signs that warrant professional intervention include:

  • feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
  • having thoughts about not wanting to be alive, seriously trying to harm or kill oneself, or making plans to do so
  • intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities
  • frequent fighting, using weapons, or a desire to harm others
  • severe out-of-control behavior that can cause harm to the child or others
  • weight loss caused by not eating, vomiting, or use of laxatives
  • extreme difficulty in concentrating, focusing, or sitting still that negatively impacts performance, such as in a school setting
  • severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • drastic changes in behavior or personality
  • repeated use of drugs or alcohol

What's next?

If you believe your child is living with an undiagnosed mental illness or is having an especially hard time with the transition into becoming a teenager, the first step is to try to have an honest discussion with them in as open and nonjudgmental a manner as possible. Tell them that you are concerned about their wellbeing and explain what you have observed that leads you to believe they may be struggling. Know that this conversation may be difficult for you and your child, and they may struggle to speak to you about any issues they’ve been experiencing. This may manifest itself in anger and conflict. And it won’t be just one discussion. Remind them that you love them, and you want to help them in any way you can. Acknowledge that this is a challenging time in your child’s development.

Once you have this conversation with your child, consider taking these steps:

Speak to your child's doctor first. Share your concerns with the doctor. If appropriate, a complete physical exam is important to rule out the possibility that there might be underlying organic or physical issues that could be causing or contributing to your child's behavior. Give your child’s doctor any information you can including any scenarios you’ve noticed they have trouble with, the time of day and circumstances surrounding these difficulties, where these issues typically occur, and what you've done so far in response. Your doctor can guide you and your child through the process of receiving a diagnosis.

Gather information. If you suspect your child has a mental illness—or your child has already received a diagnosis—do some research and collect information from reputable organizations. You can find mental health professionals and treatment facilities online or through your doctor or insurance provider. You can also contact your assistance program to speak with a counselor for more information.

Learn about your child's specific condition. As parents of a child with a mental illness, your challenge may be time-limited or ongoing, depending on the diagnosis and severity. Ask your child’s doctor or mental health professional for resources where you can learn more about what to expect and how to cope.

Don’t be discouraged. A diagnosis of a mental disorder or illness needs to be put into perspective. Not all diagnoses mean severe or permanent impairment, and many can be successfully treated or managed with medication and/or therapy.

Accessing mental health care for your child and support for you

Don’t give up. Several sources cite some key barriers to accessing mental health care. Despite great strides in awareness about mental illness, pervasive stigma that continues to persist worldwide may discourage a frank discussion of your child’s mental health. This sometimes means taking a look at your own assumptions about mental illness. Other barriers could include lack of support in your geographical area, the cost of care, or bias among mental health care professionals that can lead to racial or gender disparities. Finally, having a negative experience with a particular provider may be disheartening. All of these circumstances can be discouraging. However, as a parent, you’ll need to be a staunch advocate for your child to get the help they need to be diagnosed and treated for mental illness.

Reach out for support. A child's mental illness diagnosis can be difficult for parents. You may feel upset, confused, or unsure about the future. During this time, you may benefit greatly from the support of others who are also coping with similar experiences. Your assistance program is a great place to start for finding helpful resources including support groups for loved ones experiencing mental health challenges.