The stigma surrounding mental health can cause a gap in awareness for parents and lead to myths concerning child mental illness. Awareness is clearly needed for parents; according to research published by the NIH, the first onset of most mental health disorders usually occurs before the age of 14. Yet this report from the Child Mind Institute notes that millions of children with a diagnosable mental illness are not being treated.
What keeps children from getting the treatment they need? Sometimes, parents don’t know what to look for. Other times, access to treatment is a problem. There are also the myths about mental illness. Due to feelings of shame or misunderstandings about mental illness, some parents fear taking their child in to be diagnosed or “labeled.” Considering the long-term consequences of untreated mental illness in children, these myths must be debunked. Below are five common mental health myths and the truth behind them:
Myth 1: The cause of a child’s mental illness is bad parenting
Truth: There are several versions of this myth floating around. Some think that mental illness in children is due to a parent’s lack of discipline. Others believe that if you provide a child with enough love, they will never struggle with mental illness.
The truth is, mental illness stems from a complex combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. For the majority of mental health disorders, the exact cause cannot be determined. While a child’s home environment is one factor, even children raised in optimal conditions can experience mental illness.
Mental health professionals know that parents are doing the best they can with the resources and knowledge they have. Sometimes parenting a child with a mental illness can require some parenting “super skills.” A parent’s supportive role can be a critical factor in a child’s recovery processes and a therapist can help guide you on the best ways to support your child.
Myth 2: Mental illness is a sign of personal weakness
Truth: Strength and health are not the same thing, and neither are weakness and illness. Mental illness, like many medical illnesses, can make daily activities — like going to school, socializing with friends, and doing homework— much more difficult than they are for other kids. That means it takes extra strength and energy to do those things. So in fact, kids who struggle with mental illness are often incredibly strong.
However, just as we wouldn’t expect a child with diabetes to manage their illness on their own, we can’t expect children to manage their mental health symptoms on their own. They need the help, support, and guidance from their care giving system to be most resilient in the face of mental health challenges.
Myth 3: Children are too young to have mental health problems.
Truth: Though the signs and symptoms may be different for young children than they are for adults, people of any age can experience mental illness. Because many children don’t have the language to express what they are experiencing, the symptoms can be missed by parents and caregivers and so are at risk for being left untreated.
If you notice a significant disruption in your child’s mood, sleeping or eating patterns, hobbies or social activities, or a regression in their development, they may be struggling with their mental health. If your child is verbal, approach them in a kind and non-judgmental way to inquire about how they have been feeling.
It is also important to discuss the changes you notice with your pediatrician or mental health provider so that your child can be properly screened.
Myth 4: Mental illness in children is just a stage. They will grow out of it.
Truth: A child’s mental health disorder is very unlikely to go away on its own over time. In fact, like many medical conditions, mental illness left untreated can get worse over time.
Because our children and teens are always changing, growing and developing, it can be easy to mistake mental health struggles as “just a phase.” While everyone, including children, experiences fluctuations in their mood, if you notice changes in your child lasting longer than a couple weeks or if your child ever acts in an unsafe way, check in with your child’s doctor.
With the correct diagnosis, treatment plan, and early intervention, children can recover from most common mental health disorders, while others, bipolar disorder, can be well-managed.
Myth 5: There is nothing I can do to help my child with a mental illness
Truth: Having a child with special needs is challenging and, at times, exhausting. I’ve often heard parents say that the parenting that worked on all their other children just don’t work on their child with a mental illness. After multiple attempts fail, parents can begin to feel helpless. This is another reason that it is so important to seek support from a mental health professional. Along with helping your child build skills to recover or manage their symptoms, a therapist will work with parents to find what they can do to best support the special needs of that child.
Parents can also help by simply assuring their child that their symptoms are not their fault. By working together as a family team, and with the help of a mental health professional, a child with a mental illness can live a meaningful and fulfilled life and fully participate in their community.
Another great reference is our Children’s Mental Health: A Guide for Parents handbook. This handbook addresses questions like, what mental illness is, what causes it, and how to recognize the symptoms.