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Kids and Mental Health: Does Your Child Need Help?

May 23, 2018

As parents, most of us would do anything to ensure our children’s health. Often, though, the focus falls mainly on kids’ physical health — and their mental health gets overlooked. 

One big reason for this is that mental health just isn’t talked about as much as physical health. We know, for instance, to go to an orthopedic doctor for a broken bone. But a lot of people just aren’t sure how to address a mental health issue. That leaves a lot of kids (and adults) without the help they need. 

Many kids struggle with mental health problems

Mental health includes emotional, psychological and social well-being. Kids’ mental health affects how they think, feel and act. It determines how they handle stress, relate to others and make choices. 

Unfortunately, between 13 – 20% of kids ages three to 17 experience a mental health problem every year.1  And nearly two-thirds of them get little to no help.2 

Kids deal with many of the same mental health issues as adults. But sometimes kids express their suffering in different ways. Conditions most often seen in children include:

  • Anxiety, including separation anxiety
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

Warning signs

How do you know if your child may be struggling with a mental health issue? Watch for:

  • Decline in school performance
  • Regular worry or anxiety
  • Repeated refusal to go to school or take part in normal activities
  • Hyperactivity or fidgeting
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Depression, sadness or irritability 

What you can do

If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, start by talking with your child’s pediatrician or family doctor. It may be best to talk with the provider privately at first, without your child present. From there, you and the provider can work together as a team to determine the best course of action. 

If your child is in school, you could also consult with his or her teacher and school counselor. Their insights into your child’s behavior at school may help you make decisions on next steps. 

If you feel that you’re not finding a solution, think about getting help from a child behavioral specialist. Types of specialists include psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and behavioral therapists. (Read our Guide to Mental Health Professionals to learn more.) 

Treatment

There are several different mental health treatment options for kids, including:

  • Play therapy. The Association for Play Therapy explains play therapy as “a way of being with the child that honors their unique developmental level and looks for ways of helping in the ‘language’ of the child – play.”
  • Psychotherapy. This kind of talk therapy can be particularly helpful with older kids and teens. 
  • Medication in combination with therapy. For some mental health conditions, such as severe depression, studies show that medication combined with therapy is more effective than either treatment on its own. 

If you’d like to talk with someone about your child’s mental health, we’re here to help. Call (319) 356-6352 to schedule an appointment, or use our Request an Appointment form.

1Key Findings: Children’s Mental Health Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 16, 2013.

2Recognizing Mental Health Problems in Children, Mental Health America.


Jen Sacora, MA, LMHC, RPT

Jen Sacora's areas of focus include play therapy and other expressive therapies, individual and family therapy, depression and anxiety, parenting, grief and loss, early trauma and attachment, teens with high functioning ASD and co-occurring mental health diagnoses.