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Watch for these signs with children’s mental health

It can be challenging at times to raise children. Families might ask, “How are we doing raising our children? Are we doing OK?” Families often wonder about the mental health of their children and too often feel guilty about perceived differences in comparison to other children. It is challenging to know where to begin or what messages to give children to build their mental health.

What signs do we watch for with children’s mental health, and how do we recognize the signs might indicate that everything is not going according to the plan?

There are five signs that are recognized that might indicate that someone we care about is in emotional pain or struggling with a challenge and might need help.

1. A change in personality. This might be a sudden or gradual change in the way someone typically behaves, or they begin to behave in ways that don’t seem to fit their values or who they are.

2. Uncharacteristic agitation (anxiety, anger or moodiness). You may notice more frequent struggles controlling temper, and they might seem irritable or unable to calm down. They might struggle to sleep, and their anger will seem out of proportion to a given problem.

3. Social withdrawal and isolation. This is a change from their typical social behavior or they might pull away from friends they typically like to be around. You might see changes in school performance or activities.

4. Lack of self-care or risky behaviors. You might notice that they stop taking care of themselves or engage in risky behavior (abusing alcohol or illicit substances).

5. A sense of hopelessness or feeling overwhelmed. You might notice that they have a shift in optimism or can’t seem to find anything to be hopeful about. Sometimes when someone experiences this warning sign they might say the world would be better off without them.

These warning signs, particularly when occurring together, are an indicator that it is time to seek help. When you recognize that a child in your family is suffering, you can reach out for help. Gone is the myth that families have to solve all things from within the walls of their own home. You can go to your primary care provider, a licensed mental health provider or religious leader.

In family medicine we discuss the risks, benefits and options for mental health treatment. We might consult with psychotherapists and psychiatrists about the right choice of treatment. As providers we call this “collaborative care,” and the more mental health and medical providers collaborate, the better the care is for the child, the family and the community.

Finally, there are messages that we can give to our children:

▪ Everyone has some say in their lives.

▪ “You” matter, and “we” matter.

▪ You can learn from our failures and distress.

▪ You have real strengths, and you can share them.

Letting them know these messages can help them overcome or reduce mental health problems.

Dr. Joseph Wiedemer is a family medicine doctor who practices in State College.