Early Intervention: Recognizing and Addressing Mental Health Challenges in Young Children

It’s not uncommon for kids to have difficulties with emotional regulation, but when does this behavior become a cause for concern for parents? Read on to learn more about recognizing and addressing mental health challenges in young children.

Learning disabilities vs. mental health challenges

When discussing developmental topics like this one, it’s important to make the distinction between learning disabilities and mental health challenges. Learning disabilities typically refer to specific challenges individuals may have in the acquisition of knowledge or skills (including reading, writing, and mathematics).

On the other hand, mental health challenges often refer to emotional struggles, feelings of anxiety, behavioral problems, or intense mood shifts. As an example, learning conditions like ADHD or autism are often not considered mental health illnesses by experts – and in fact, many individuals who live with these disabilities lead happy and productive lives.

Although the stigma surrounding learning disabilities can certainly lead to mental health challenges, it’s important to recognize that these issues should be approached differently. Unfortunately, individuals with learning disabilities are often placed at a higher risk for developing mental health issues – which is why it’s so important to recognize the signs early on.

Symptoms of mental health challenges

What are the signs and symptoms parents should be on the lookout for? According to the CDC, the most common symptoms are depression, anxiety, and behavioral problems. In addition, many of these symptoms overlap – for example, it’s extremely common for individuals to suffer from both depression and anxiety simultaneously.

To make matters more complicated, the struggles that learning disabilities like ADHD can put on children often lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. It’s for this reason that the CDC also discusses the challenges of ADHD in their resources surrounding children’s mental health. 

Behavior problems, like defiance or avoidance, are more common in younger children. From ages 12-17, concerns often become more specific (and alarming to most parents). We understand this topic can be uncomfortable for many parents to think about, but we believe it’s important to share all the facts in the best interest of helping our children. Referring to adolescents aged 12-17:

  • Nearly 40% had feelings of hopelessness
  • Nearly 20% had thought about suicide
  • Roughly 15% experienced a major depressive episode
  • Less than 5% had a substance or alcohol use disorder

Another important note is that depression and anxiety have increased steadily over the past several years. Based on available data, diagnosis rates began to increase during the era of social media’s rise to prominence from 2007-2012. It’s for this reason that we highly recommend parents check out our article on this touchy subject: Living In a World of Likes and Followers: Teaching Kids to Avoid the Strain of Social Media.

Recognize the good signs, too

It’s understandable that most online blog articles surrounding this topic will focus on the negative symptoms described above. However, it’s also important for parents to recognize indicators of positive mental health. According to the CDC, the most common indicators that a child is happy and mentally stable are when they show:

  • Ages 3-5: Affection, resilience, positivity, and curiosity
  • Ages 6-17: Additional persistence and self-control

If your child already demonstrates these signs of positive emotional well-being but is still experiencing academic difficulties in school, it may be a good idea to ask their teacher if they’ve noticed any signs of learning challenges.

However, if your child exhibits any of the behavioral changes associated with mental health struggles, it’s important to discuss your concerns with their doctor right away. For more resources, check out our blogs on the topic:

May is Mental Health Awareness Month! Discover more ways to help support your child’s emotional well-being.