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How to know if your child has a mental disorder

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You know when your kid’s not feeling well physically, but would you know what to look for if he or she had a mental illness?

It’s a growing problem in the United States, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that one out of five children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Learn what the signs are, which disorders are overly diagnosed, and how you can find help.

What to look for

“The signs look different than adults,” said Dr. Elizabeth Waterman, a clinical psychologist at Morningside Recovery Center in Newport Beach, Cali. For example, depression often shows up as irritability, agitation and bouts of crying.

Teens with depression usually withdraw and become isolated from their friends, and they may have conflict with parents and authority. “It needs to be present significantly longer than for adults for it to be considered depression,” Waterman said.

Kids with anxiety usually worry a lot, fearing sleep, being separated or being alone, and getting injured.

Other signs may include:

• Hyperactivity: difficulty concentrating, completing homework, sitting still, and following rules

• Changes at school: poor grades, complaints of stomachaches and headaches, making excuses not to go to school, social and behavioral changes

• Loss of interest in regular extra-curricular activities

• Sleep changes: too much or not enough

• Eating and exercise: eating too much or not enough, exercising too much, taking laxatives, or binging or purging

• Increased mood swings, irritability, and anger

• Impulsivity: It’s normal for teens, but reckless driving, drinking, smoking, using drugs and sexual behaviors can be dangerous.

• Extreme or unexplained fear or sudden attachment

• Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, and sadness

• Anxiety or panic attacks

• Destroying property, breaking the law, hurting animals, and hearing voices

• Talk about death, not wanting to live, and thoughts of suicide.

If you think your child may have a mental disorder, here’s what you should do.

Get a check-up

It’s important to make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician first to rule out a physical condition, an allergy, a learning disorder, or autism, which might look like a mental disorder, according to Diane Lang, an author, psychotherapist, and positive living expert.

Find a specialist

When getting an evaluation, instead of jumping to conclusions, focus on getting an accurate diagnosis or ruling one out. “It could easily be that it is a behavioral issue or a lack of parenting skills,” said Waterman, who added that a therapist or child psychologist can make a diagnosis, provide treatment or recommend family therapy or parenting skills training.

Know that some disorders are overly diagnosed

Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most common parent-reported diagnosis, according to the same CDC report. Yet both Waterman and Lang agree that ADHD is overly diagnosed, which is why it’s important to confirm the diagnosis with the pediatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist.

And some show up later

“(Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) are being diagnosed in children far too often,” Waterman said. These two disorders also tend to show up later on in the teen years, so it’s rare that a young child would have it.

Don’t use labels

Avoid terms like ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety disorder,’ because they can be damaging to a child’s self esteem, Waterman said. Instead, talk about the symptoms as the problem and explain that your child is getting help so he or she doesn’t have to feel worried, for example.

Get educated

Oftentimes, parents don’t really understand how the child is feeling or how to help them, which is why learning all you can about your child’s disorder is crucial.  “If a parent gets educated on what the child’s going through, they can learn how to cope with it better themselves,” Lang said.

Get support

Sharing your experience with other parents who are going through the same thing can help you cope. Check with your child’s pediatrician or local hospital for information about local support groups.

There is hope

“Mental illness is treatable,” said Lang. Parents should feel confident that with professional help, their child can get better.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.