Is your child going through a phase, or is it something more serious?
Editor’s note: This is part three of a four-part series where eastern Idahoans share their knowledge and experiences with mental illnesses, in hopes that other people in similar circumstances can get the help they need. Part one was about a teenager who tried to end her own life, and part two dealt with a family whose son died by suicide.
IDAHO FALLS — When children or teenagers act out, are irritable or isolate themselves, experts say parents should not always assume it’s just a phase.
Mental, behavioral and developmental disorders begin in early childhood, and one in six children ages 2 to 8 years old in the United States has been diagnosed with one of those disorders, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
On top of that, 50 percent of all lifetime mental illness begins by the age of 14, the National Alliance on Mental Illness says.
The CDC says the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children are attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, behavioral problems, anxiety and depression.
EastIdahoNews.com spoke with several local health care professionals to explore the four most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children and how parents can help chidlren deal with these issues.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder can cause attention difficulty, hyperactivity and impulsive behaviors. According to the CDC, about 6.1 million children ages 2 to 17 have received an ADHD diagnosis.
Dr. Carol Anderson is the owner of the Psychology Center of Idaho Falls and has spent roughly 25 years evaluating children and adults for attention-deficit disorders. She said there are two different ways to get ADHD — acquired, meaning through a brain injury, or congenital, meaning a child was born with it.
“Girls especially get missed a lot with ADHD because they are less likely to have the disruptive behaviors that often go with ADHD,” Anderson says. “They tend to be less physically active, aggressive and impulsive.”
Dr. Matt Larsen, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Center, says it’s unclear why ADHD affects children, but some things can increase the risk of someone getting ADHD. For children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy, or if somebody has an anxiety or tic disorder, ADHD is more likely.
“We don’t know a specific reason,” Larsen says. “We just know some things that correlate.”
When evaluating a child for ADHD, Anderson says it’s important to gather information from different sources such as school teachers, parents and the child themselves — if they are of a certain age — to help make a proper diagnosis.
A comprehensive medical history report helps rule out other medical conditions that can mimic the symptoms of ADHD, she says.
“It’s important to rule in (and) rule out what’s actually causing the issue because the treatment strategies are different,” Anderson says.
For somebody with a milder form of ADHD, behavioral strategies such as positive reinforcement can help, Anderson explained. However, sometimes medication is necessary.
“(We) Base treatments on dysfunction,” Larsen says. “I know nobody wants to medicate their children, but the evidence is very big that ADHD medication helps an immense amount, not only with grades, with confidence, with depression and with decreasing future drug use — treatment helps all those things.”
A lot of kids learn to cope and get better handling ADHD and don’t need medications as they get older, Larsen says.
Larsen defines behavior problems as behaviors that aren’t functional (and) mess up life. Behaviors that fall into that category include aggression and self-harm.
“Plenty of kids are hyperactive, don’t want to go to school, have stomachaches, try a drug (and/or) do something sexual,” Larsen says. “Then there’s destructive behavior, (which) is a sign of a mental illness, anxiety with avoidance, depression to the point of being suicidal and self-harming, sexual experimentation at a young age (and) dangerous situations (such as) not sneaking out but running away overnight.”
Knowing when to be concerned about younger children and teenagers’ behavior isn’t always easy because not all parents draw the line at the same spot, Larsen says.
A phrase that Larsen often uses and wants parents to remember is, “All behavior makes sense.” He says that doesn’t mean all behaviors are good or acceptable, but the individual is doing them for a reason.
If you can figure out what the reason is — by using age-appropriate language — and what they’re trying to get out of the situation, then you can respond by helping them in a healthy way, Larsen says.
“If you can’t identify the problem, you can’t fix it. If you can’t identify the root cause of the problem, your solution won’t work,” he says. “You need to find out what’s impeding (them) and what the problem is and what the possible solutions are. Sometimes it’s medication. Sometimes it’s therapy. Sometimes it’s changing parenting styles.”
If the behavioral issues don’t improve, Larsen suggests seeing a school or professional counselor.
Kids may not have the same amount of things to worry about as adults, but that doesn’t mean they’re exempt from anxiety.
The CDC says about 4.4 million children ages 3 to 17 have diagnosed anxiety.
Often children may have anxiety because it runs in their family, says KayDee Martinez, a social worker and counselor at Tueller Counseling in Idaho Falls. But sometimes, it’s because they struggle to manage their mood and emotions related to their experiences.
“(That’s) very typical with younger children (because) they don’t know how to express what they’re feeling,” Martinez says. “So they also don’t know how to cope or express their feelings in an effective way.”
To determine if a child is suffering from anxiety, Martinez recommends that parents evaluate what’s going on in their life by learning if any major changes — good or bad — have taken place. Anything from moving homes to a tragic incident can trigger anxiety.
Not only should parents keep an eye on the state of their children’s mental health, but they should work on their own as well. Martinez says this is important because if a parent suffers from depression and anxiety, a child might learn to view the world in the same way.
“That could benefit their children a great deal,” she says.
Anxiety presents itself in younger children in several ways, including difficulty sleeping and concentrating, anger outbursts, fearfulness, stomachaches, and headaches, Martinez says.
“Most children have occasional tantrums or meltdowns, but if that increases (frequency, intensity and duration), that could be a telltale sign,” Martinez says.
In the teenage years, the way anxiety manifests also changes. Martinez says teenagers with anxiety often isolate themselves, their grades can be affected, and they may turn to substance use or cutting their skin.
“Another sign that is common that a lot of people don’t know about is irritability,” Martinez added. “When teens and kids become irritable, that can indicate that there’s an underlying cause for that behavior.”
To help children and teenagers manage anxiety, Larsen says remember the basics: eat right, sleep well and exercise.
Martinez says it’s common to have anxiety and depression at the same time. In fact, having more than one disorder is most common in children suffering from depression, according to the CDC. They reports about 3 in 4 children ages 3 to 17 who have depression also have anxiety.
Diagnoses of depression and anxiety are more common with increased age, the CDC also reports.
The signs to watch for in a depressed child and teenager are similar to the signs that would be seen in somebody with anxiety, Martinez says.
When it comes to treatment, she says medication isn’t the only option.
“It would be creating a life worth living that helps them feel safe and teaching them to express their emotions,” she says.
If somebody is suffering from depression, Martinez believes a big part of overcoming it depends on how the individual views the world, and if they are willing to work on viewing it differently to help them feel better.
To create a life worth living, an individual must take care of their body, mental health and spirituality. Having things to look forward to and building a support system that a person feels comfortable going to is also important, Martinez says.
“For teenagers, that might look like an extracurricular activity or a club — anything that gets you excited and gives you vitality and helps you to want to go out and live your life,” Martinez says.
Depending on how the depression originated, it may go away, but it can also last a lifetime.
“If symptoms are due to a biological cause, then a person may truly need some help balancing the chemicals,” Martinez says. “Sometimes situations or changes happen and symptoms of anxiety or depression arise because we’re human and life is tough and having someone to talk to, to help them work through these symptoms, can help resolve it.”
‘There is help’
Martinez says from birth to 8 years old are the formative years when children are learning how to view the world around them and how to respond to it. She says if their mental health is not attended to then, problems could carry on into adulthood and become worse.
“Early intervention is very helpful to give children the coping skills that they need to be able to adapt to environmental changes … to help them function better,” Martinez says.
Larsen also hopes parents realize they don’t need to feel alone during a mental illness journey with their children.
“You can start with friends, parents, school counselors, professional counselors, psychologists (and) psychiatrists,” Larsen says. “There is help.”
Mental health doesn’t just affect children, it’s also a major problem for adults — particularly those in high-stress careers. On Friday, EastIdahoNews.com will explore mental health issues that impact those working in emergency careers.