In recent years, more focus has been directed to the emotional and behavioral needs of pediatric patients than ever. Busy schedules and distressing events compound with the regular challenges of growing up, and some patients experience unhealthy levels of stress.
Parents and caregivers are then faced with the questions of when to intervene and what to do. Your pediatrician is available to discuss any concerns and will help identify the best course of action. While the symptoms listed below can be explained by something other than mental health initially, they all certainly affect well-being in the long term:
- Mood changes, including unpredictable mood swings, angry outbursts, or sadness/weeping
- Drastic weight loss or gain
- Persistent headaches
- Abandonment of favorite activities or hobbies
- Loss of confidence, low self-esteem
- Decline in academic performance
- Changes in sleep habits, including excessive sleeping or insomnia
- Isolating from friends and/or loved ones
“It’s not abnormal for kids to lose friendships, switch hobbies, or undergo physical changes, especially during puberty,” says Dr. Greg Robson at Oldham County Pediatrics. “Even so, open communication can make a big difference in helping them through complicated times. Maintain an honest, non-judgmental environment, and let them know help is available.”
That help may include seeing a professional, but kids benefit from a “day off,” meditation breaks, exercise, and support from others the same as adults do. Most teens are also prone to experimental phases—while consequences may be appropriate, they should be secondary to safety and wellness. When in doubt, a conversation with your pediatrician can provide reassurance or next steps.
Some behaviors, however, are “red flags” that warrant third-party intervention as soon as possible:
- Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or paranoia
- Body image obsession, which can indicate an eating disorder and/or body dysmorphia
- Recurrent risk-taking behavior, including stealing
- Substance abuse, including alcohol, illegal drugs, prescriptions, or OTCs
- Self-harm, or a desire to self-harm
- Desire to hurt others
- Suicidal thoughts or plans
These red flags can quickly spiral out of control. Getting help is also crucial for parents who likely feel overwhelmed or to blame, especially if a mental health disorder is present in another family member. Support is beneficial for the whole family, and it’s understandable if you’re not sure where to begin. Non-threatening communication with your child is the optimal starting point, followed by a conversation with your healthcare provider. He or she can recommend next steps depending on the cause and severity of the problem.
Kids may be secretive if they feel embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid. If they ask for a private discussion with their physician, remember that the goal is to address the problem even if they’re most comfortable sharing details with a non-family member. Your pediatrician is not actively trying to exclude you and will encourage your child to communicate so you can work as a team.
For more information about mental health in pediatric patients, visit https://www.healthychildren.org/english/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/pages/default.aspx