What are the common mental health disorders in children and teens?

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

Mental health of children and teens

Children and young adults can have the same type of mental health problems as that of an adult but with different symptoms. Since such symptoms and signs are unknown to many parents, these conditions can take severe forms that can affect the overall development of the child. Since children lack the power of expression to describe or communicate their problems, these issues are often confused with normal childhood behaviour.

In many cases, the stigma associated with mental disorders also prevents the use of the right treatment and medication for the suffering individual. The growth stage of children involves certain normal changes in behavioural pattern but some of these can have a deeper significance. Many mental illnesses show up before the age of 18 is reached and hence the right care is essential.

Shocking stats

In the United States, millions of children and teens are affected by a variety of mental health conditions annually. Statistically, half of all mental health conditions originate by the age of 14 but most of them remain undetected and untreated. The main types of such disorders found in adolescents are anxiety, mood, attention, and behaviour disorders.

At the same time, depression which often leads to suicide is also a major cause of death for young people above the age of 15. Teenagers with mental health issues are often directed towards substance use which increases the chances of unsafe sexual behaviour. In children, most of these disorders are related to exaggerations or abnormal forms of normal behaviours and emotions. In some cases, multiple disorders may occur simultaneously or a mental disorder can accompany a physical disorder. Early treatment for these problems can help is quick recovery and prevent any lasting impacts on the future of the child.

Causes of mental health disorders

Though the exact cause of such disorders is not known, they can be caused by various factors which may be physical, social or environmental. There can also be factors related to heredity, biology, and psychological trauma. Some major causes of mental health disorder which have been pointed out by experts are listed below.

  • Childhood abuse, trauma, or neglect
  • Continuous social isolation or loneliness
  • From experiencing discrimination and stigma in any form
  • Situations like social disadvantage, poverty or debt
  • Bereavement
  • When subjected to severe or long-term stress
  • Suffering from a long-term physical health condition
  • Being a victim of domestic violence, bullying or other abuse as an adult
  • Various physical causes like a head injury or a neurological condition such as epilepsy.
  • Sudden change in the environment that may lead to adverse conditions.
  • Increased academic or social pressure

In some cases, children can find it difficult to deal with the act of growing up and can this can result in an emotional turmoil. Being unable to deal with this phase of transition in life can also drive some teenagers towards drugs and alcohol. Some experts believe that certain mental health conditions can develop from genetic patterns but no specific evidence for the same has been uncovered so far.

Research has been ongoing on the complex chemistry of the brain which can affect some mental patterns. Many psychiatric medications that are used to control the levels of various brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine have been found effective in treating certain conditions. Abnormal functioning of specific regions in the brain can also lead to mental imbalances.

The symptoms of mental health disorders

Symptoms exhibited by children can be specific or general ones which are often harder to comprehend. In many cases, these signs are ignored and are often considered as a normal part of the growing up process. For parents, it is important to note the symptoms and consult an expert if they believe that something is wrong with the child. The following symptoms can be related to psychological problems in children.

  • Behaviour problems in preschool or in school
  • Hyperactivity way beyond normal
  • Trouble sleeping and nightmares
  • Excessive fear, worrying or crying which may lead to a fast heart rate and rapid breathing.
  • Extreme disobedience or aggression. While some of this is normal for children, extreme forms leading to conditions like deliberate destructiveness or hurting peers or animals are causes of worry.
  • Lots of temper tantrums all the time
  • Persistent difficulty separating from a parent for prolonged periods.
  • A sudden decrease in school grades and lack of concentration
  • Loss of interest in associating with friends or favourite activities
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sudden changes in weight
  • Sudden changes in sleep habits
  • Visible prolonged sadness or sudden mood changes
  • Substance use or abuse
  • Seeing or hearing things that are not present in reality

sleep walking & night terrorsIn the case of teenagers, the symptoms can be more acute and there can be some other types of symptoms that can point out mental disorders. Those may include the following.

  • Destructive behaviour involving damaging property or setting fires.
  • Developing an attitude to run away or running away.
  • Withdrawal from family and friends.
  • Comments, remarks or writings that suggest a desire to harm himself or others. This can also lead to a tendency to cause self-injury.

The various forms of psychological disorders in children

Various forms of mental disorders can develop in a child in case healthy social and emotional habits are not maintained. It is also possible that certain root causes can give rise to multiple disorders. Some of the major types of disorders are discussed below.

Anxiety disorders
This condition is associated with feelings of excessive uneasiness, worry and fear. This is the most common mental disorder and around 1 out of 5 of kids have experienced at in one time or the other. This can be classified into a generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder and panic disorders.

The nervousness generated by this condition can also result in some physical conditions like rapid heartbeat and sweating. Other symptoms include sleep patterns, appetite and lower energy levels. This can interfere with the overall daily life of the kid including the performance at school level.


Depressions are also related to mood disorders and in general, female teenagers are more affected by this condition than the males. Those affected show heightened signs of irritability, fatigue and mood disorders. Depression can also lead to substance abuse and more risk of suicidal behaviour.

This can also be a cause for the loss of appetite and a reduction in weight. In females, this can be related to the menstrual cycles and is often termed as a premenstrual dysphoric disorder.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

This is a very common disorder that affects a lot of kids and makes it very difficult to focus their minds on a subject. This condition also makes children impulsive and hard to remain calm and settled. It can also lead to emotional immaturity in children. Teenagers affected by this condition can show risk-taking behaviours, including unsafe sexual behaviours.

Disruptive Behaviour Disorders

This disorder involves defiant behaviour, problems with conduct and disregard towards basic rules. Such children can show aggressive behaviour and be disrespectful towards other people’s property or pets. Female teenagers with this disorder often have the tendency to skip school, run away from home or engage in high-risk sexual behaviour.


This is a serious mental problem in children that involves loss of touch with reality. This disorder is generally found in the late stages of adolescence and it can often be associated with the other conditions mentioned above. This can be related to factors like history of trauma, abuse, neglect or separation in childhood.

The diagnosis of mental disorders in children

The diagnosis process is not simple and there are no direct tests that can identify child mental problems. The psychiatrist or psychologist can assess the symptoms and behaviour patterns and their effect on the daily life of the child and the parents.

The medical history and the general background of the child are studied and evaluated to find any cause of trauma along with any family history of mental health conditions. The various aspects of the child’s development and the time period of the behaviour are also noted. Details about the child’s history like change in school, incidences of bullying etc. are taken into consideration.

The views of teachers and caregivers of the child can also be taken into account to analyse the issue. Since children live in a family, the overall family environment is an extremely important factor that affects their behaviour.

Children belonging to a family troubled by domestic violence and substance abuse are more likely to be affected by mental issues. The process of diagnosis can be complicated as every child have a different rate of growth and mental development. At the same time, this is an extremely necessary step to take the right steps towards treatment and recovery.

Treatment of mental disorders in children

The main forms of treatment for mental disorders include the following steps.


Since this process involves talking with a psychologist regarding the issue, it is also called talk therapy or behaviour therapy. Through these sessions, a child can learn about the problem that he or she has and can gain the courage to take the right steps for overcoming it. The parents are also actively involved in the process and certain methods are prescribed that the child can practice. The overall progress is tracked over a period of time.


The medications can come in various forms and they include stimulants, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications and mood stabilizers. The doctor determines the necessary dosage that the patient will need after a thorough analysis of the conditions. Medications are often used in combination with psychotherapy sessions.

Family counselling

The behaviour of the child can affect the relationship between the parents and also with the siblings. Hence, in many cases, parents and other members of the family are also made a part of the treatment. For some parents, group sessions that involve talking with other parents who have similar problems are offered as support to cope with the situation. This can also lead to more effective handling of the child and a better understanding of the problems.

Prevention of mental disorders in children

alcohol abuseTaking the right steps to prevent mental disorders in children is something that parents need to take seriously. Prevention is a far better step than to wait for the disorder to get fully developed. Parenting can have a major impact on the mental health of a child and hence improved parenting skills and a more stable home atmosphere can go a long way in preventing these disorders. It has been observed that negative parenting practices involving harsh discipline and low warmth can result in behavioural problems.

On the other hand, over-involved protective parenting and low warmth can lead to emotional problems in a child. Parent training sessions or child social skill training sessions can help to understand the preventive steps that can be taken. In many countries, preventive use of cognitive behavioural therapy has shown positive results in reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.


It is important to understand that an early diagnosis and timely intervention is crucial to address the issues of mental health disorders in children and teenagers. In many cases, mental disorders can leave a lasting impact that can not only affect the life in home and school but can also affect the adult life of the child. For families, healthy lifestyle practices are important to maintain the right level of physical as well as mental health. Young people can be difficult to communicate with but parents need to respond with the right level of sensitivity and responsibility if they find the child to be upset.

As most research on mental health is based on adults, finding the right specialist for children can be difficult at times. But there are multiple organisations that can offer the right level of support to the child as well as the parents. With the right treatment, mental disorders can be cured completely and the child can get back to a healthy life.


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