As parents, we are quick to protect our children. When a physical ailment pops up, like a high fever, a strange rash, or broken bone, we take the child to the doctor. These things are easy to see and we immediately react. It can be different when a child begins having random outbursts, trouble at school, becomes noncompliant, or distant. These kinds of things leave parents, as well as teachers, confused and unsure about what to do.
It may be that the child seems fine most of the time, but these behaviors pop up on occasion. Despite hearing from colleagues, friends, relatives, or even the family doctor that this is just a “stage,” your gut feeling tells you something just isn’t right.
And, frankly, we can’t afford to let it slide. Statistics from NIMH are staggering.
- 1 in 5 children ages 0 to 11 experience a mental disorder in any given year. These fall into four broad categories: conduct, emotional, hyper-kinetic, and other less common disorders.
- 50% of mental disorders begin before the age of 11.
- The age of full-blown onset of common disorders:
Age 6: anxiety
Age 11: ADHD and behavioral disorders
Age 13: Mood disorders
- It is estimated that 85.5% of affected children and young adults were exhibiting significant symptoms of mental illness at some point between the ages of 9 and 11.
- 10 is the average number of years children wait to receive treatment for a mental health issue.
- 70.4% of youth in juvenile justice settings meet the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis.
Very young children present symptoms in different ways. If adults aren’t paying attention, the warning signs could easily be missed.
Infant and Toddlers
- Crying for no reason
- Withdrawing from people and/or avoiding eye contact
- Not playing with toys
- Not enjoying cuddling
- Not easily calmed or comforted
- Having trouble adjusting to change or loss
- Becoming clingy
- Is in constant motion
- Is intensely irritable or has tantrums
- Change in sleeping habits or sleeping more
- Changes in eating or bowel movements
As teachers, we are in a unique position to pick up on some of these indicators. We are familiar with children’s typical behaviors in general, based on their developmental level. And, if we are perceptive… the typical behaviors of individual children in the group.
As we observe closely, we can see subtle differences or changes and make note of them. Conversations with parents can be initiated to determine if what we are noticing is also being noticed at home. Or, we may find out what may be causing this.
Often some of these indicators can be easily misinterpreted as transient irritability, defiance, boredom, attention-seeking, etc. There is something going on, but it is not clear what it is. Maybe it is something that will pass- a phase or rough spot. So, we have adults who choose to ignore for now, take a wait and see.
From my own experience, I know how difficult it can be to distinguish between something innocuous and something that needs immediate attention. After my youngest son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, I looked back on all the indicators that had been right there, over time- indicators that had cleverly masqueraded as typical, adolescent behavior. I had been keenly aware of changes that were taking place, but unaware of what was actually happening. And, it’s important to remember that just reaching a diagnosis is no magic threshold, when everything falls into place. It can be years before the right doctor and combination of medications are found that enable some progress. There will be setbacks, frustration, and plenty of heartache. As a parent, you will spend the rest of your life at the watchtower, taking on the role of your child’s strongest advocate.
When I think back even earlier, I could probably recall a few incidents that gave me pause at the time, but I never made a connection between those and what was to come. We cannot, of course, heap blame on ourselves for missing what now appears obvious. But, what we can do is educate ourselves about those subtle changes and indicators that may signal a child is in trouble. We can take seriously, those little moments that catch our attention.
And, most importantly, we can take action, so that children can be diagnosed and treated early, when it is most likely to provide the best outcomes. No child should have to wait years to receive services for a mental health issue.
We have to make this a priority.
“The international health community is concerned about the mental health status of our young people. It is a time bomb that is ticking and, without action right now, millions of our children growing up will feel the effects.” Dr. Hans Troedsson, former World Health Organization Director for Child and Adolescent Health.