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Published on July 12, 2012

Don’t Overlook Your Child’s Mental Health 

Keeping your child healthy is a priority for most parents. While you’re watching for any signs or symptoms of physical illness, don’t overlook mental health. In fact, your child is more likely to need treatment for a behavioral health condition like ADHD, anxiety or depression than any other physical illness.

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression are among the most commonly diagnosed behavioral health conditions, said Dr. Beverly Gunderson, psychologist with Avera Medical Group University Psychiatry Associates.

ADHD is characterized by the inability to pay attention, listen, complete tasks and follow directions. It affects an estimated 3 to 7 percent of school-age children. This may or may not include hyperactivity and impulsivity. While it’s often noticed when the child reaches school age, some preschool-age children develop behavioral problems that might get them “kicked out” of daycare. 

“Attention deficit also impacts a child’s social interaction,” Dr. Gunderson said. “They are impatient, don’t want to wait, and have difficulty taking turns.”

Treatment may involve medications and therapy to devise behavioral or environmental strategies for dealing with the disorder. Children in most cases don’t “grow out” of ADHD – as adults they learn to handle it by making adjustments in learning and socialization.

Parents can help by being “firm, fair and friendly,” Dr. Gunderson said. “Becoming angry only increases the negative behaviors.” Patience is key. Dr. Gunderson advises a calm approach that’s less critical, and more oriented toward teaching.

Major depression affects approximately 2 percent of school-age children, and 8 percent of adolescents. A key sign is loss of interest in daily activities. “They don’t want to get involved with things,” Dr. Gunderson said. Depressed children or youth may not sleep well, or sleep too much. They may lose weight or gain weight. They may be anxious, worried or angry, have difficulty concentrating, and have recurrent thoughts of harming themselves.

Depression can either stem from circumstances, loss, family situation, home environment, a chemical imbalance, or “all of the above,” Dr. Gunderson said.

Depression becomes an emergency when the child or adolescent is in danger of suicide. The practice of cutting or other self-harm should also be addressed as soon as possible. “This is a sign of inner, unresolved stress that the child is not talking about. It’s a huge red flag that something needs to be dealt with,” Dr. Gunderson said.

Anxiety may be a disorder of its own, or it may be tied into depression. “A child can be anxious without depression, but also have anxiety with depression,” Dr. Gunderson said. A worst-case scenario of anxiety is panic disorder. More often, kids may worry about what other kids think about them, or if they will be teased or bullied, or get into trouble.

Treatments for depression are effective, and usually include talk therapy, medications, or both. “Not every case of depression needs to be treated with medications,” Dr. Gunderson said. If medication is prescribed, talk therapy is usually recommended as well. “Even if children or youth don’t have a specific problem to bring to a counseling session, they need to learn how to talk about what is happening in their lives,” she added.

Look for ways to enter into the child’s world, for example, saying, “You seem to be spending a lot of time alone in your room. Is there something we should talk about?”

“Parents have a tendency to want to fix things and make everything better, when in fact, they just need to listen,” Dr. Gunderson said.

Reaching out for help for your child is important. “The child needs to know you’re doing something. This is an example of your care and concern,” she said.

If you suspect behavioral health issues in your child, talk to your pediatrician or family practitioner, who can refer you to mental health professionals and other resources, if needed.

The Avera Behavioral Health Center offers a free 24-hour assessment line, 1-800-691-4336, in which callers can speak with a confidential counselor. Learn more at www.AveraBehavioralHealth.org