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Recognizing Early Childhood Mental Health Conditions

Jayden Rubino

As caretakers, it can be difficult to distinguish differences between regular childhood behaviors and signs of possible mental illness. “Mental disorders among children are described as serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions, causing distress and problems getting through the day.”[1] As parents, therapists, doctors, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or teachers, it is typically up to the adults in a child’s life to identify if a child may have a mental health condition. Children often may lack the vocabulary to accurately explain their symptoms or concerns.  As protectors, we only want what is best for our kiddos, and to make sure they are happy and healthy.

Approximately 6.1 million children aged 2-17 have received an ADHD diagnosis.[ii] For children aged 3-17, approximately 1.9 million children have been diagnosed with depression, 4.4 million diagnosed with anxiety, and 4.5 million diagnosed with a behavior problem.[iii] These are the most common diagnoses for children aged 2-17.[ii] 

As caretakers, it is important to familiarize yourself with the warning signs of mental illness in early childhood. Some of these can include:

  • Social isolation[iv]
  • Self-harm, talk of hurting self, talk of hurting others[iv]
  • Unexplainable feelings of sadness[iv]
  • Intensified worrying that impedes daily functioning[iv]
  • Difficulty concentrating[iv]
  • Frequent excuses to miss school or extracurricular activities[iv]
  • Substance abuse[iv]
  • Intense or severe mood swings[iv]

If a child in your life is showing any of the mentioned behaviors or warning signs, always seek help from a mental health professional. If you feel uncertain as to whether your child’s symptoms are regular adolescent behaviors or could possibly be a sign of a mental health condition, seek input from other adults involved in your child’s life. This could be a teacher, coach, friend, or loved one. Trust your instincts, gather input, and consult with your child’s doctor - your concerns are valid.

“Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.” – Josh Shipp


  • Perou R, Bitsko RH, Blumberg SJ, Pastor P, Ghandour RM, Gfroerer JC, Hedden SL, Crosby AE, Visser SN, Schieve LA, Parks SE, Hall JE, Brody D, Simile CM, Thompson WW, Baio J, Avenevoli S, Kogan MD, Huang LN. Mental health surveillance among children - United States, 2005-2011. MMWR 2013
  • Data and statistics on children's mental health. (2019, April). In Centers for disease control and prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html
  • Ghandour RM, Sherman LJ, Vladutiu CJ, Ali MM, Lynch SE, Bitsko RH, Blumberg SJ. Prevalence and treatment of depression, anxiety, and conduct problems in U.S. children. The Journal of Pediatrics, 2018. October 2018
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing.

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