I have been dealing with mental illness since I was nine years old — well over half my life. With an initial diagnosis of OCD, the diagnoses of depression, anxiety, ADHD and bipolar disorder came soon after.
It was hard at first to understand why I was acting out. To some, it looked like a rocky childhood coming-of-age. However, looking back, the warning signs of mental illness were glaringly obvious.
Here are the signs I exhibited as a child with mental illness.
Decreased Interest in Activities
Normal childhood activities may include things like creating art, playing with friends, building sandcastles, and spending time with trucks and dolls. Scraped knees are to be expected and reading skills should be improving. However, with a child with mental illness, these activities and aspects of growing up may decrease. Things like conflict and distance between peers, spending more time isolated, and a general disinterest in things they loved are signs that there could be a deeper struggle going on.
Fights with Loved Ones
For children with mental illness, picking fights can be common. Because of what they’re struggling with, they have no one to take their newfound anger and emotions out on except those people closest to them. Because of that, some might see those children as defensive, troublemaking and beginning to go down a very negative path. However, due to the mental illness that has begun to surface, it’s usually the case that they don’t mean the hurtful words or actions happening.
If your child is beginning to have extreme mood swings, pay close attention to them. Are the mood swings triggered by something in particular? Such as interpersonal conflict? Or is your child experiencing cyclical changes in mood for months at a time? Understanding the nature of the mood swings can help a clinician determine whether it is a mood disorder, trauma-related or just normal childhood growing pains.
Lack of Communication
Children have a hard enough time communicating as it is, considering that they’re still learning what communication is. This may be a harder thing to pick up on, but if you see a very noticeable lack of or issue with communication, that could be a sign of mental illness. An example of this is if your child seems to be sharing less and less with you about school, their friends, their feelings, etc.
New Fear of Things
If your child’s mannerisms and personality are usually fearless and open to new things, and they suddenly are too scared to try anything new, there may be a deeper issue of anxiety. This is especially true if they develop fears of everyday activities they were previously used to doing, such as riding the bus.
Children are meant to be social and make friends as best they can. In fact, it can be who their first friends are that contribute to how they grow up and who they grow up to be. If you find your child isolating more than usual, that could be a warning sign — especially if your child is usually outgoing and makes friends easily.
Mental illness, especially in children, can be a frightening and discouraging thing. Coming from someone who has personally lived through it before I even hit double digits, it was exhausting and frustrating as a child. Especially because kids don’t understand what’s going on. With that said, there are always resources to turn to and help you can get.
Counseling is an option for children, and there are even specialists who focus specifically on child psychology. Although it can be scary, uncertain and heartbreaking to think that your child is struggling, getting them help sooner rather than later could be the difference between a healthy and unhealthy childhood, and even possibly into adulthood. Another option is medication. I have been medicated since the beginning of my mental health journey and I can confidently say that without it, I would not be where or who I am today.
Whatever is the best option for you and your child, it is important to get help as soon as possible. Talk to your child and try to understand where they’re coming from. Carefully bring up the topic and ask how they are most comfortable getting help. Make it seem non-negotiable — as it should be. The first step to getting help is having them want it themselves as much as you want it for them, too.
Emmie Pombo is an editor, writer, marketing strategist and mental health advocate rooted in Nashville, Tennessee. She holds a degree in Digital Journalism from Southeastern University and specializes in mental health and wellness writing. Emmie hopes to bring awareness and understanding to mental health and addiction struggles as well as shatter the stigma around mental illness.