Parents and caregivers are often the first to notice that their child might need help. Mental health, also referred to as emotional or behavioral health, should be considered in the same way as other health issues in your child’s life.
In this section, we provide some general information that parents and caregivers can use to help navigate the sometimes confusing world of child mental health. We provide resources and information on common mental health disorders, symptoms and warning signs, as well as information on the best treatment.
This page includes questions to ask when meeting with your pediatrician or mental health care provider, information on best and evidence-based practices as well as links to other valuable resources in our state and across our nation.
For more information, be sure to view our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section.
Does my child need help?
It is sometimes difficult to know if and when your child needs professional help. Probably the most important guideline is that if you are concerned as a parent or caregiver, the best place to start is with your child. Parents and caregivers usually know their children better than anyone else. You know if your child is displaying an unusual emotional state or behavior. If you are concerned, don’t worry alone and seek help.
If your child is old enough, you can talk to them about how they are feeling or ask if there is anything new going on in their life. You should take note of unusual circumstances your child might be experiencing at home, in school or in their community. Exposure to external events that are traumatic or stressful can cause changes in your child’s behavior. Some issues can emerge with time as your child gets older or in some cases, are evident very early on in life. Sometimes parents become concerned because their child is acting very differently from other siblings. Although every child is different, we do have some ranges of behavior and functioning that we consider to be “normal” for specific developmental phases of life.
It is also helpful to observe when and under what circumstances your child is experiencing difficulties. This will better help you understand their concerns and provide you with valuable information if you decide to seek help.
A good question to ask yourself is, “Are my child’s difficulties interfering with his or her ability to function normally in everyday life?” In other words, is your child having difficulty at home, in school, with friends or within the family? Are your child’s difficulties affecting their ability to eat or sleep? Are they having a hard time in situations where they used to be okay? Are these problems significant enough that are causing your child or other family members distress? If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, it might be a good idea to seek help from a qualified professional.
Understanding mental health
Mental health, also known as emotional or behavioral health, is a vital part of your child’s overall health and development. Mental health has often been separated from the way we think and talk about our overall health and well-being. However, your child’s mental and physical health are both part of their overall well-being. When your child is having a problem with their physical health, there may also be issues with their mental health. On the flip side, some mental health issues in children can cause physical problems and symptoms.
Many children and adults experience mental health issues from time to time. These may include feeling overwhelmed by certain circumstances, feeling sad as a result of being hurt by others or experiencing a loss, or feeling anxious or stressed about events or things in your life. However, for some, these normal stressors can become so overwhelming that the child begins to have difficulty functioning in their day-to-day life.
For children with chronic difficulties, we have developed ways of understanding and categorizing their problems called mental health diagnoses. Diagnoses can be given by a pediatrician or a qualified mental health professional. Many diagnoses are not permanent and can change over time.
It is important for parents to know that mental health diagnoses are a way for professionals and parents to identify and understand your child’s difficulties. However, these diagnoses do not fully explain or describe your child’s strengths and positive nature. Diagnoses simply provide us with a way of understanding (and treating) the child’s situation and the problems or concerns they currently face. Mental health diagnoses also help insurance providers and Medicaid classify and identify your child’s issues for payment or reimbursement.
Mental and behavioral health problems fall into many categories, including adjustment problems, anxiety disorders, mood disorders (depression), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), developmental disorders, behavioral or conduct disorders, feeding and eating disorders, elimination disorders, sleep disorders, substance use disorders, personality disorders, and psychotic disorders.
How to get the best help
It is a good idea not to worry alone. Your pediatrician is often a good place to start. Your pediatrician can help you decide if you need more help. You may be reassured to know that some of your concerns are typical issues for your child’s developmental age and phase. In some cases, your pediatrician might recommend a further consultation or refer you to a qualified child mental health professional. If your pediatrician is not able to help, you can seek a consultation through a local child mental health provider or community agency.
There are other places you can get help as well. Talking to your school counselor or school psychologist can be a place to start. Some families find it helpful to talk to their minister. Many families have found it helpful to talk to other families about their experience. You can find support from other families by contacting a local family advocacy organization. However, if your child has a significant emotional, mental or behavioral health concern, it is best that you seek help from a qualified child mental health professional.
It can be hard to know where to start and what questions to ask. For more information, view our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).
To find a qualified mental health professional, you can talk with your private insurance company who can give you a list of preferred providers in your area. If you live in CT and have HUSKY, you can ask the Behavioral Health Partnership (BHP) to help you find a provider or you can call 2-1-1. You can also find a list of Connecticut providers trained in key evidence-based mental health treatments here.
Mobile Crisis Intervention Services are now available 24/7/365 across Connecticut (and in many other states). This service can send a trained mental health professional to your home, school, or location in the community – typically in under an hour – to assist a child experiencing a behavioral health crisis and their family. To access children’s mobile crisis intervention services in Connecticut, call 2-1-1 and press “1” for crisis. Learn more about mobile crisis services in CT here.
There are a range of common mental health disorders that affect children and adolescents. Mental health problems fall into a lot of categories, including adjustment related problems, anxiety disorders, mood disorders (depression), developmental disorders, behavioral (conduct) disorders, feeding and eating disorders, elimination disorders, sleep disorders, substance abuse disorders, personality disorders and more serious disorders often referred to as psychotic disorders.
Many parents and professionals are uncomfortable labeling children with a mental health diagnosis, but like any health related problem, diagnoses are useful to help both identify and understand the nature and degree of your child’s problem. Diagnoses by themselves never fully describe your child and have limits.
Often times, children are diagnosed with more than one mental health disorder. Mental health professionals use a system to diagnose their mental health problems called the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The DSM system uses a (multi-axial) system of diagnosing mental health disorders on five levels (axes) describing different aspects of your child’s problem or disability.
- Axis I: clinical disorders, including major mental disorders and learning disorders
- Axis II: underlying pervasive or personality conditions, as well as mental retardation, and developmental disorders
- Axis III: acute medical conditions and physical disorders
- Axis IV: psychosocial and environmental factors contributing to the disorder
- Axis V: Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) or Children’s Global Assessment Scale for children and teens under the age of 18
When children suffer from more than one problem, they may have more than one diagnosis on the DSM system. This is often referred to as a co-occurring disorder. For example, children may have ADHD, anxiety and school avoidant behavior. In many cases, it is more likely for a child to have more than one diagnosis. The number and type of diagnosis your child may have, influences the type of treatment and services that can help your child. Diagnostic systems that are used are not perfect and more than one diagnosis is often necessary to fully capture your child’s issues.
Parents are often worried that their child may get the wrong diagnosis or that their real problems may be missed. To make sure that the mental health professional working with your child has the best understanding of your child’s strengths and weaknesses, it is important that parents, professionals, and the child actively work together to develop a shared understanding of the child’s difficulties and concerns.
As with any diagnostic process, things can be missed or not understood, and although mental health professionals do their best to get to know your child, misdiagnosis can occur. If you have worries or concerns about your child’s diagnoses, it is always helpful first to share your concerns with your mental health professional, or if necessary, to get a second or third opinion. As the parent or caregiver, you often spend the most time with your child and have the best sense of their strengths, issues and concerns. It is important to find a pediatrician and/or mental health professional that you can speak honestly with and trust.
People have a range of misconceptions about mental and behavioral health issues for both children and adults. Many of these come from a time in history when we did not understand mental health issues and believed that people that struggle with mental health problems were “possessed, demonized or bad.” Historically, people with mental health problems were locked away, separated from the rest of society or were given harsh treatments. Although we have learned a great deal from the past, about identifying, understanding and treating mental health problems, there still remains a great deal of stigma and shame.
In today’s society, popular TV shows, talk shows, and celebrities who talk openly about their own mental health struggles have made these concerns more common. However, for many people, mental health issues are still something to hide and feel shame about, especially if it affects their family.
Some misconceptions about mental health issues include the worry that you or your child are “crazy” or will have to deal with these problems forever. The truth is that many mental health concerns can be treated successfully and do not last for long periods of time. There are some mental health issues that people will have across their lives, but with early identification, prevention, and the right treatment, these difficulties can often be lessened or relieved.
It is difficult for parents and caregivers to see their children having a hard time. Sometimes parents struggle with getting help because of their worries about what this might mean for their child or their family. Parents may worry about what other family members, neighbors or other peers in their community think about their child or their own parenting skills. Although medical and mental health providers are working towards a time when mental health issues are treated like any other health issue that your child may face, stigma and shame do exist. It is important when getting help, to find treatments and providers who are sensitive to you and your child’s personal family beliefs and values.
One way of dealing with issues of stigma or shame is to get support from other parents and caregivers that are going through the same concerns. The State of Connecticut and across the nation has networks of parent advocacy organizations. Parent advocates can help parents and caregivers navigate the mental health system, understand their child’s mental health concerns, and find the right type of help and gain support through the whole process. Find a list of family advocates in CT here.
Frequently asked questions
As the person who cares for your child, you usually know your child better than anyone else. As your child develops and grows, they may have problems from time to time. If your child is acting unusual or seems to have a lot of distress for a long period of time, it may be time to get help. Other times to worry are when your child is showing highly unusual behavior that is causing them or others harm. A good question to ask is, “Are my child’s problems getting in the way of his or her day-to-day functioning?” Also ask yourself, “Is my child having problems with eating, sleeping, concentrating, or doing his or her usual tasks such as social activities, school and family relationships?”
All children have trouble from time to time. It is normal for children to have times when they are sad, angry, frustrated, and act shy or show anxiety– especially when faced with new situations. But, when your child is often distressed, cannot be soothed or comforted or is having problems that seem to be getting worse, it is a good idea not to worry alone. Just like your child’s physical health, there is a certain time when you may need to get a professional’s help. Also, if you are feeling overly concerned, have questions, or think that your child needs help or support, it is probably time to reach out to a qualified professional.
It is sometimes hard to know whom to turn to when your child has mental health concerns. A good place to start is your child’s doctor or pediatrician. You can talk to your child’s doctor about your worries and they can help you understand whether these concerns are a normal part of your child’s growth, or whether they need help. Some pediatricians can treat mental health issues, while others will send you to a specialist. It is important to remember that your pediatrician is trained to understand child development and to know what is normal for any given age or phase of development. However, your pediatrician may not have specific expertise in treating mental health issues. Your pediatrician can help assess the level of concern and then help refer you to a mental health specialist. Your pediatrician’s office should also be made aware of other types of help or treatment your child may be getting – just like when you see any other type of medical specialist for your child.
Many areas also have community mental health centers or child guidance clinics that provide support to children and offer a wide range of mental health services to children and families. To find a provider in CT you can call 211. Some parents choose to get help from a mental health professional in their area that is part of their health plan. A list of these health professionals can be found by asking your health insurance carrier, or if you are a HUSKY member, through the Behavioral Health Partnership.
Other places to turn for help include your child’s school counselor or school social worker, clergy or trusted teacher. These people can often help you find the support you need. Many communities even have school-based health centers that may provide mental and behavioral health treatment right at school.
However, in some cases, families may find that no one seems to have the answers, or that others seem to reduce their concerns. Remember that you can always call a mental health professional directly if you have concerns or would like a meeting. It is sometimes hard to know who to call and where to start. However, most communities have qualified mental health professionals who specialize in treating children.
If your child is experiencing a crisis, you should get help right away.
If there is an immediate danger, call 911.
If your child is experiencing a mental health crisis or is at risk of hurting themself or others, get crisis help:
In Connecticut, CALL 988 or 211 MOBILE CRISIS: You can call 211 (press 1 for crisis, and 1 for youth) to access Connecticut’s youth Mobile Crisis Intervention Services, which provides free rapid, urgent, face-to-face crisis response for children and their families from a trained counselor 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Youth Mobile Crisis can also be reached by dialing 988.
From Anywhere, CALL/TEXT/CHAT THE 988 SUICIDE & CRISIS LIFELINE: Call 988, or text 741741, for the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also Chat at www.988lifeline.org. Learn more at https://www.preventsuicidect.org/get-help/ct-988/.
If you have private insurance, you may need to choose a provider in your network. Families may also choose out of network providers but may have to pay some costs of the service. HUSKY families can get services anywhere that takes your plan. Families who do not have health insurance can often get services from public agencies or clinics.
Finding a mental health professional is like finding any other qualified professional to help your child. If you live in Connecticut there are many resources, such as Help Me Grow or the 211 Infoline that you can use to help find the right referral for your child.
If you were searching for an orthodontist, you might start with your dentist or ask friends whose kids had to get braces. For mental health concerns, a good place to start is by asking your child’s regular doctor or pediatrician for a referral. You can also ask trusted friends, teachers, school counselors or clergy. Sometimes you might want to simply do a Google search for providers in your local area, visit their websites, and call them to learn more. Clinics, agencies or practices that specialize in working with children and families are a good place to start.
There are many questions you can ask to help make your decision and things you should look for when choosing a therapist. You might have to speak to several therapists before you find one that is a good match. You and your child should feel at ease with the therapist, although sometimes it takes a few sessions before children become engaged or build enough trust to open up. It is important to know that the therapist you choose has experience working with children as well as experience in treating the specific issues that concern your child.
The Connecticut Behavioral Health Partnership, admininstered by Carelon, has a directory of providers. You can also search for providers trained in specific evidence-based treatments by searching the Connecticut Evidence-Based Practices Directory. This directory lists providers trained in some of the proven evidence-based practices and treatments that are available in Connecticut for children and families with behavioral health needs.
There are many types of professionals that provide mental health services to children. When choosing a therapist, it is best to seek the services of a licensed mental health professional or accredited clinic or agency. Licensed professionals must complete ongoing continuing education and adhere to certain professional standards in order to maintain licensure. Ideally, you should seek services from someone who has specific training or experience in working with children. Children have their own special needs and should be treated differently than adults.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors (MDs) who have all gone to medical school and completed residency training and fellowships to specialize in psychiatry. Psychiatrists must pass a state licensing exam. Child psychiatrists have completed more specialized training (usually in the form of a fellowship) in working with children. Psychiatrists can provide evaluation, diagnosis, psychotherapy and also can prescribe and monitor medication. The ability to conduct medical evaluations and prescribe medication are two important differences that set psychiatrists apart from most other mental health professionals. Because there are not many child psychiatrists in CT or throughout the United States, they often work as part of a team or are asked to be involved when there are more serious psychiatric concerns or a need for medication. At times, your pediatrician or an APRN can prescribe some medication to treat mental health issues (often for concerns such as ADHD, anxiety, or depression), but if your child has more serious or complex mental health issues, it is recommended that you seek help from a qualified child psychiatrist. To learn more about psychiatrists, you can visit the American Psychiatric Association website.
Psychologists are doctoral-level, trained behavioral health specialists that have expertise in providing services (psychotherapy), conducting assessments (including psychological testing), evaluation, diagnosis and research. Psychologists have completed doctoral degrees in psychology (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) and performed years of supervised training in providing psychotherapy and assessment. Psychologists must pass a state licensing exam. As part of their training, psychologists complete two years of pre-doctoral and post-doctoral training in clinical psychology. Child psychologists focus that training on working with children and families. Psychologists do not prescribe medication, but often have advanced training in assessment and behavioral treatment for children and families. To learn more about psychologists, you can visit the American Psychological Association website.
Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs or LMSWs in CT) – Clinical social work is a specialty practice area of social work which focuses on the assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness, emotional, and other behavioral disturbances. Individual, group and family therapy are common treatment modalities. Many social workers specialize in working with children and families. Clinical social workers working as therapists have earned master’s degrees (or higher), completed additional clinical training with supervision, passed a licensure exam, and complete annual continuing education to maintain licensure. Clinical social workers can perform services in a variety of settings including private practice, hospitals, community mental health clinics, primary care, and agencies. To learn more, see the National Association of Social Workers website.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) – These are clinicians that have master’s degrees and training working specifically with families and/or children. LMFTs approach their work by looking at family systems and how they work. Often, LMFTs do two years of graduate education and are licensed after two years of a supervised internship. To learn more visit the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Licensed Mental Health Counselors or Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) – Mental health counselors complete master’s degrees in counseling or a related field a 2-3 year training in counseling to work with adults, families or children. A licensed mental health counselor must earn a master’s degree in counseling or a closely related mental health discipline; complete a minimum of two years post master’s clinical work under the supervision of a licensed or certified mental health professional; and pass a state-developed or national licensure or certification examination. As with all other mental health professionals, it is important to choose a mental health counselor who has specific training and/or experience working with children and families. To learn more, visit the American Counseling Association website.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN) – APRNs are registered nurses with a post-graduate level degree (typically a master’s) and advanced clinical education, knowledge, skills, and scope of practice. APRNs work closely with patients to achieve optimal outcomes through critical analysis, problem solving and evidence-based decision-making. Psychiatric APRNs have specialized education and training in psychiatric/mental health nursing. In addition to the basic nursing functions performed by Registered Nurses (RNs), APRNs are also qualified to assess, diagnose, and treat individuals or families with psychiatric/mental health problems. APRNs can also earn doctoral degrees (PhD, DNSc, and EdD) and work as professors, researchers or hospital, agency or graduate program administrators. To learn more, visit the American Psychiatric Nurses Association website.
Therapists/Para-Professionals – In many health settings, Bachelor’s degree-level professionals also provide services to children and families, usually under the supervision of a licensed professional. Typically these services include intake, screening, referrals, case management, and other services that do not require specialized/advanced clinical training or licensure.
Non-degree/Indigenous Support Providers – In some cases, parents, advocates and other concerned adults can provide services and supports to children and families based on their needs. In many cases, these people have a special talent or skill such as speaking a specific language, coaching, or mentoring. It is important that they are supervised by a licensed mental health professional or an established agency or provider who works with children and families.
Other Supports – It is important to note that many children and families benefit from services and supports other than traditional providers. Often, these services are provided with other forms of services. It is well researched that many children benefit from after-school activities, athletics and community-based and faith-based activities.
The most important question to ask a therapist is if they have training or experience working with children, especially with children who have some of the same problems or concerns that your child is facing. It is also important that the therapist makes efforts to stay current and knowledgeable about best practices in child mental health. You should also ask about billing, insurance, cancellation policies, and other logistical issues up front to avoid surprises later.
You should feel comfortable talking to your child’s therapist and not be afraid to ask questions. This is your child’s health, and no question is wrong. You should have an active role in your child’s treatment from the very start. Get more tips on working with your child’s therapist in this article from the Child Mind Institute.
The mental health field has come a long way in knowing which treatments work best for some issues and concerns, but there are often not easy answers. If your child has an ear infection, a course of antibiotics may be prescribed to target the problem. If your child has a mental health concern, the answer might be less clear, but a well-trained mental health professional can work with you to plan a treatment that best meets your child’s needs and includes our knowledge of best practices.
The first place to start in identifying the right treatment is by having a thorough evaluation. During the evaluation, the clinician will collect history about your child and family, his or her symptoms, events leading up to the distress, school performance, relationships and other issues. It often takes many sessions to collect the right information to do a comprehensive evaluation. During this time the clinician may also ask you or your child to take some simple screening tests and other assessments to better understand the nature of your child’s concerns. Some providers use certain screening and assessment measures with all patients to make sure that they get the best treatment and no hidden concerns are missed. Using objective measures is a recommended practice.
To learn more about specific disorders and their treatment, please visit the AACAP parent website.
Testing is a generic term that can be used in different places and often means that a professional, such as a teacher, pediatrician, counselor or special education consultant wants to learn more about your child. Testing can show a child’s strengths and weaknesses, and it can help diagnose a child, based on their symptoms. It can give us information about their intelligence and academics as well as behaviors that are a problem.
Screening is when several brief tests and/or instruments are used to identify children who may be at risk for certain mental health issues. For example, children in the juvenile justice system in Connecticut are screened for mental health issues to determine the types of services/supports they might need.
Assessment is a more comprehensive process that uses a series of different tests or instruments to help create a picture of your child. Assessment may look at specific areas such as your child’s educational needs, or your child’s psychological functioning. Assessments are often done by child psychologists, either individually or part of a team. Results of assessments can be used to determine the best level of care, the right services and help point to the needs of your child.
Evaluation is the most comprehensive. It may include screening testing and assessment as well as clinical interviews of you, your child, service providers and other adults in your child’s life. Evaluations often include gathering your child’s history and background and to know all the things that contribute to your child’s mental health issues. Often, a team of mental health professionals including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other educational and mental health professionals will conduct evaluations. Results of an evaluation may be used by court systems, schools, state agencies and treatment providers to help find out the best services for your child. Family members should be an active part of an evaluation.
There are many types of treatments for children who have mental health issues.
Individual outpatient treatment is where your child will see a counselor one or more times weekly to help them with their difficulties. For younger children it is most helpful to have the child’s parent or caregiver involved in the treatment. Outpatient services can be provided as individual, group, and family services.
In-home services are also given by many agencies and are an effective way of treating many mental health concerns. Other treatments include school-based, after-school, partial hospitalization, inpatient hospitalization and residential treatment.
There are many specific treatment models for different behavioral health conditions and challenges. Evidence-based treatments are those that have been shown to help children with a certain condition or set of conditions improve symptoms or recover better than “usual care.” You can learn about some of these evidence-based treatments here.
Some parents choose faith-based support, recreational activities, native or local healers, or nutritional plans to help with their child’s mental health concerns. Parents must find out whether these treatments have worked for children with similar conditions in the past and if they are safe. It is important to know that the service provider you choose has a good track record of working with children and can demonstrate successful outcomes.
Depending on the type of condition, how serious and how long your child has had the symptoms, your pediatrician or child psychiatrist may prescribe medication for your child. Often, medication is prescribed with some type of behavioral treatment, such as counseling. However, in an increasing number of cases, especially in the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), some providers may only prescribe medication.
Parents and caregivers often are very concerned when they first learn that their child might be prescribed medication. It can be a scary idea. But in most cases, parents find that medication can be a helpful tool in relieving their child’s symptoms. Questions about your child’s medication should be directed to your pediatrician or the prescribing physician.
Typically, no. Medications will not usually significantly change personality, but should affect your child’s symptoms. This is a common concern for parents because giving your child any medication is always a concern. Psychotropic medications (drugs used to treat mental health issues), often do not change your child’s personality but can lessen their psychiatric or behavioral symptoms. For example, children who have depression or acute anxiety may get relief from these symptoms when taking certain medications. Parents should closely monitor their child when taking medications and report any concerns about side effects, changes in mood or personality to the prescribing physician.
Side effects differ with each medication. Common side effects include symptoms such as drowsiness and changes in appetite. Many side effects are mild and temporary, and will subside as your child’s body adjusts to the medication. It is best to ask your doctor and/or the pharmacist about the possible side effects for any medications your child is taking and to let them know about all other supplements or medications your child is taking to avoid drug interactions.
Medications that have been approved for use for children must go through an intense review by the Federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA). All medications have risks and it is important to discuss these with your prescribing physician and/or pharmacist before taking them. Overall, psychiatric medications prescribed for children, when used properly, are usually safe.
However, any medication can be dangerous if not taken correctly, if combined with certain other substances or medications, or under certain other circumstances. It is important to ask a qualified physician, pharmacist or nurse practitioner about the medication’s safety. Ensure your provider is aware of all other supplements and medications your child is taking as well as any allergies or past reactions to other medications.
Medications differ in price and can be expensive in some cases. Most common psychiatric medications are paid for by insurance plans and HUSKY/Medicaid, although co-pays can vary widely.
If your family is getting HUSKY/Medicaid coverage in CT, ask the Behavioral Health Partnership (BHP) if the medicine is covered, and if not, what the estimated cost of the prescribed medication will be to you and your family.
For those with private health insurance, it is best to ask your private insurance carrier about your estimated costs. You, your doctor or pharmacist may be able to appeal an insurance company’s denial of coverage for certain medications. They may also be able to recommend generic or more affordable alternatives. For name-brand medications that do not have generic versions, you can also try visiting the drug manufacturer’s website for the medication to see if discount coupons are available.
If you do not have health insurance you may want to ask your family doctor about your options or visit Access Health CT to look at plans and assistance available through the state health insurance exchange. Enrolling in the GoodRx program can also help you find lower prices on prescription medications.
It depends on your child’s diagnosis and symptoms. Some conditions will require only a temporary course of medication, while others may benefit from long-term medication (if tolerated well). The prescribing clinician should assess your child on an ongoing basis to see if medications are still needed and assess the current dosage. If your child is taking a combination of psychiatric medications, it is especially important that your doctor assess the child on a regular basis.
It is common for parents to blame themselves for their children’s issues. Children’s mental health issues are a result of many different things, including biological (genetic), environmental, family, and individual factors. It is helpful for parents and caregivers to take an active role in their child’s treatment, but blaming yourself for your child’s issues will not help you or your child.
Some disorders are biologically linked, and children are more likely to have some problems if close family members have them. There are no known psychiatric disorders that are 100% hereditary. If a child’s parent has a certain mental health concern, it does not mean the child will suffer from the same difficulty. Similarly, even two people with the same diagnosis may experience different symptoms or severity. However, if the child’s parent does have a psychiatric issue, it does increase the risk for the child to have similar difficulties. The way your child develops is due to both heredity (biology) and their environment.
Both boys and girls can have mental health concerns and sometimes these issues show themselves in different ways. The way in which mental health issues develop depend on many things, but the child’s gender can have a role.
Because boys and girls are often socialized in different ways, boys are more likely to show outward signs of anger, aggression and acting out behaviors. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to hold in these feelings and this can lead to problems, such as depression, anxiety and other “internalized” disorders. However, newer research has shown that the differences in the way in which girls and boys experience mental health issues is getting smaller.
Some agencies and providers offer gender-sensitive counseling and services designed for the needs of girls or boys. There are also some providers and agencies who specialize in working with transgender youth. As a parent or caregiver, you know your child best and can help point to the issues and concerns that will be most important when finding the right help.
It is common for people to worry about what others think and have concerns about the stigma (shame) of mental health issues. But stigma can sometimes get in the way of enabling your child to get the treatment he/she needs.
Different cultures have different views about mental health issues and concerns, and in some cultures it is not okay to talk about such issues. However, in our society it is becoming more accepted to talk about mental health concerns. Parents often say that a safe place to talk about their issues is with other parents who have some of the same concerns or experiences.
Mental health issues should be treated like any other health concern that your child might have. However, if you have concerns, laws can protect you and your child’s privacy and information cannot be shared without your consent.
Like other health problems your child may face, many mental and behavioral health problems take care of themselves with time and the right treatment. It is important to get treatment for your child when problems first happen to help stop them from getting more serious. Some disorders can last a lifetime, but many children will respond well to treatment and can still improve symptoms and functioning with time and support.
Your child’s behavior or performance at school may or may not be affected by his/her mental health issue. Many times, it is helpful to talk with your child’s school counselor or social worker (or other school-based mental health professional), to inform them of your child’s diagnosis and treatment so they can give the right support at school. In some cases, school-based services can be very helpful.
For more serious mental health concerns (or developmental disorders such as autism or ADHD), your child’s issue may be recognized through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that provides your child with added services, supports, and accommodations in school. It is important to work closely with your school to make sure your child is observed and tested so that he/she can get the right support and services if needed.
For minor mental health concerns, some parents choose not to share the information with the school and are not required to share it, as this information is considered confidential.
Parents and caregivers often say that talking to other parents is one of the most useful forms of support. Connecticut has many family advocacy and support centers where trained parents can assist you and link you to local resources. The Connect4Families toolkit has a section listing family advocacy organizations in Connecticut. You can also consult CT’s Community Collaboratives which can link you to other resources.
At times, parents may need to get their own treatment and support, and if needed, find a referral at their local community mental health center, private provider, or through their health insurance or HUSKY network. In Connecticut, you can also dial 211 to get referrals to local providers.
It is important for parents to be honest and use words your children can understand. A good place to start is by asking your child to talk about what is worrying them or bothering them. It is important to create a safe place where your child can talk with you in the open about their issues. Some parents find that a certain time or place is best for talking to your child.
It is important for you to use the words that your child can understand and to answer their questions in a simple way so that you do not burden them with unnecessary information. Explain to your child that because of the concerns they have been having, you are going to talk to someone who can help. As your child continues getting help, it is important to keep talking with your child so that they can share their ideas/concerns. If you are having problems talking to your child, developing a better relationship and open communication can be one of the goals of treatment. A family therapist may also be able to help.
If you talk to your child’s brothers and sisters, use words that are right for their age and that they can understand. Be careful not to burden your other children with too much information, but respect their questions and concerns.
In some cases, siblings or other family members may be asked to take part in some of your child’s treatment. If the treatment is home-based or involves new skills in the home, it will be helpful if the family understands and supports your child. However, it is vital to help your child feel safe and protect their privacy even within the family setting.
In recent decades, we have learned a great deal about which services work best for children who have mental health issues. Services that have been found to work very well for children and have research supporting them are called “evidence-based practices” or “evidence-based treatments.” These evidence-based practices have been proven to work in the real world with children who have real issues and concerns.
“Best” and “promising” practices are services that we believe to be the best available services for children, but have yet to have had enough research to back them up (demonstrating that they work) to be called evidence-based practices.
It is important to note that evidence-based practices have not been identified for all mental health issues that children face. Providers should involve parents and caregivers in developing a treatment plan for your child with clear goals where results can be measured over time.
In Connecticut, evidence-based practices are only available in some places, depending upon your child’s issues and concerns. Many community-based providers offer these services for children with mental health issues and you can ask your mental health professional about them when you contact them for help. For example, one evidence-based treatment for children who have been affected by trauma is called Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT).