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Talk to your child’s doctor. Ask questions and find out everything you can about the behavior or symptoms that worry you. Every child is different and even normal development varies from child to child. Sensory processing, language, and motor skills are developing during early childhood, as well as the ability to relate to parents and to socialize with caregivers and other children. If your child is in daycare or preschool, ask the caretaker or teacher if your child has been showing any worrisome changes in behavior, and discuss this with your child’s doctor.

If you suspect your child may have behavioral or emotional problems, it is important to seek help and an evaluation from your doctor or a mental health professional. Signs and symptoms of childhood and adolescent emotional problems may include:

Trouble sleeping
Feeling sad
Mood swings
Troubling or disturbing thoughts
Withdrawal or isolation
School problems
Stealing or lying
Obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors
Excessive weight gain or loss
Trouble paying attention
Anxiety or frequent worries
Dangerous or self-destructive behavior
Use of drugs or alcohol

First, consult your child’s doctor. Ask for a complete health examination of your child. Describe the behaviors that worry you. Ask whether your child needs further evaluation by a specialist in child behavioral problems. Such specialists may include psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and behavioral therapists. Educators may also be needed to help your child.

Similar to adults, disorders are diagnosed by observing signs and symptoms. A skilled professional will consider these signs and symptoms in the context of the child’s developmental level, social and physical environment, and reports from parents and other caretakers or teachers, and an assessment will be made according to criteria established by experts. Very young children often cannot express their thoughts and feelings, which makes assigning a diagnosis a challenging task. The signs of a mental disorder in a young child may be quite different from those of an older child or an adult.

Sometimes, yes. But in other cases children need professional help. Problems that are severe, persistent, and that impact daily activities should be brought to the attention of the child’s doctor. Great care should be taken to help a child who is suffering because mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders can affect the way the child grows up.

Mental disorders with possible onset in childhood include: anxiety disorders; attention deficit and disruptive behavior disorders; autism and other pervasive developmental disorders; eating disorders (e.g. anorexia nervosa); mood disorders (e.g. major depression, bipolar disorder); schizophrenia; and tic disorders. Under some circumstances, bed-wetting and soiling may be symptoms of a mental disorder.

Psychotropic medications may be prescribed for young children with mental, behavioral, or emotional symptoms when the potential benefits of treatment outweigh the risks. Some problems are so severe and persistent that they would have serious negative consequences for the child if untreated, and psychosocial interventions may not always be effective by themselves. The safety and efficacy of most psychotropic medication have not yet been studied in children. As a parent, you will want to ask many questions and evaluate with your doctor the risks of starting and continuing your child on these medications. Learn everything you can about the medications prescribed for your child, including potential side effects. Learn which side effects are tolerable and which ones are threatening. In addition, learn and keep in mind the goals of a particular treatment (e.g. change in specific behavior). Combining multiple psychotropic medications should be avoided in very young children unless absolutely necessary.

The cost of mental health treatment can be high. It is important to know what your insurance mental health benefits are. You can contact the human resource department at your place of employment, or a customer service representative at your insurance company. Questions to ask may include:

Do I need a referral from my child’s primary care doctor?
Is there a list of preferred treatment providers? What if I want to see a provider that is not on the list?
Is there a mental health deductible? Is this deductible different than my medical deductible?
Does my mental health benefit include hospitalization, outpatient visits, day treatment, or residential treatment programs?
Do I have a maximum limit of visits or treatment cost?
Does my plan exclude certain diagnoses or pre-existing conditions?