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Turn Around...Look at Me: Recognizing the Signs of Mental Illness in Children

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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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

anxious baby


  • 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

1 teddy

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.

more stress

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.


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Debra Pierce is professor of Early Childhood Education at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Ivy Tech is the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college systems, serving nearly 200,000 students annually.

Her professional background has always involved children, over the past 40 years, having been a primary grades teacher in the Chicago Public School system, a teacher of 3 and 4 year-olds in a NAEYC accredited preschool for 15 years, and a certified Parent Educator for the National Parents as Teachers Program.

Debra is a certified Professional Development Specialist for the Council for Professional Recognition. She has taught CDA courses to high school career/tech dual credit juniors and seniors in preparation for earning their CDA credentials. She also conducts CDA train-the-trainer events across the country and develops and teaches online CDA courses for several states, is a frequent presenter at national and state early childhood conferences, and is a Master Trainer for the states of Minnesota and Arizona. She was also awarded the NISOD Teaching Excellence Award by the University of Texas.

Debra is active in her community, supporting children's literacy and is on the board of directors of First Book in Indianapolis. Debra is a contributing author for Hamilton County Family Magazine and Indy's Child in Indianapolis.
She loves spending time with her two grandsons, Indy, who is 7 and Radley, 3.

Debra has spent the last 16 years dedicated to the success of those pursuing the CDA credential and is the author of The CDA Prep Guide: The Complete Review Manual for the Child Development Associate Credential, now in its third edition (Redleaf Press), the only publication of its kind. She hosts a website providing help and support to CDA candidates and those who train them at http://www.easycda.com
The comments and views expressed are not in collaboration or affiliation with The Council for Professional Recognition or Ivy Tech Community College.
Follow me on Twitter at /easycda

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Guest Friday, 22 March 2019