By Janelle Westfall, LPC, BCBA, LBA


Could my child’s current difficulties be related to a possible mental health disorder? Who can I talk to about this—and why do I feel embarrassed? Many parents have these questions and they do not have to deal with these worries and concerns in isolation. There is help out there for parents and families.


You are not alone. Up to 20 percent of children and adolescents have a mental health diagnosis by the age of 18. The most prevalent diagnosis is ADHD—with approximately 7 percent of all children meeting criteria for this disorder at any given time. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): 3.5 percent of children have current diagnoses of behavior and conduct problems, 3 percent meet criteria for anxiety disorders, 2 percent are diagnosed with depression, and 1 percent are currently diagnosed with autism. One in five children will develop a mental health diagnosis.


How do you know when you should seek professional consultation? All children go through typical developmental phases. These phases include the addition of new challenging and problematic behaviors. A mental disorder though is characterized by “a serious deviation from the typical phases of development, which can be social, emotional or cognitive.” One of the biggest red flags is when you see a sudden shift or change in behavior. Warning signs may include: challenging behavior that occurs across different domains such as school and home; significant changes in sleeping and eating habits; severe mood swings that include crying, explosive anger or aggression; talk of wanting to harm self or self-harm behaviors; and intense worries and anxieties that affect daily living.


When do disorders appear? Disorders can be identified at any time from early childhood through adolescence. Sometimes, children are able to maintain or deal with a disorder for a short period of time. The disorder does not become evident until an older age, when there are significantly more expectations. One example occurs with ADHD. There is a wide spectrum of “typical” behaviors in children. Many young children can present as hyper, “on the go,” distracted and silly. It does not mean they have a disorder. However, as they get older and the expectations for school start to evolve, it becomes more evident that their persistent pattern of inattention and hyperactivity interferes with their daily functioning. The child simply cannot concentrate, pay attention to detail, has difficulty organizing tasks or completing assignments, fidgets, runs and climbs, interrupts others and cannot stay seated. These behaviors would indicate a need for further evaluation.


Did I cause this? You have not caused this disorder. Your actions as a parent did not cause your child to have a mental health diagnosis. Your child may simply need professional help to support them in becoming the most successful individual they can be. This may mean they need counseling, behavior therapy, or medication. Many strategies are short term and provide positive outcomes. Younger children respond well to behavior therapy methods and these interventions can be taught to parents and caregivers as younger children are not mature enough to make these changes on their own. Older children may see benefit from talk therapy or cognitive behavior therapy strategies.


Where can I go for help? There are many evidenced-based treatment options for childhood mental health disorders. It is important to seek help from a mental health professional that can assist you in choosing the right interventions for you and your child.


Good places to start for referrals include:


  • Talk with your pediatrician about your concerns and ask them for referrals.
  • Reach out to your school counselor or psychologist as they may have a list of referrals.
  • Contact your insurance provider to get a list of approved providers.
  • Check out a provider locator for licensed psychologists, therapists and/or child psychiatrists in your area.
  • Interview possible providers or research their websites. Ask them what types of interventions they utilize and how long their treatment usually lasts.


Suicidal Warnings Signs & Risk Factors

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents 15-19 years of age, according to the CDC. If there is someone that you believe may be at risk for suicide, don’t be afraid to ask that person if they are thinking about suicide. There is a common misconception that you will give the person the idea to commit suicide. This is not true. More often, the person has been thinking about it for some time and is relieved to be able to talk about it with someone else. It is important for people to realize that there is help available and not to be afraid to ask for help.

Suicidal Warning Signs:

  • Talking about wanting to die or wanting to kill one self.
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.
  • Sleeping too little or too much.
  • Withdrawn or feeling isolated.
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.


Suicidal Risk Factors:

  • A history of mental health issues.
  • Alcohol and other substance use.
  • A feeling of hopelessness.
  • Impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies.
  • History of trauma or abuse.
  • Family history of suicide.
  • Job or financial loss.
  • Loss of a significant relationship.
  • Lack of health care, especially mental health and substance abuse treatment.


Janelle Westfall, LPC, BCBA, LBA is a licensed professional counselor, board certified behavior analyst and licensed behavior analyst at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Arizona.



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