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Mental Health Warning Signs in Children


Mental health can affect anyone, even young children. As an adoptive mother of two beautiful children, I have always been aware of the possibility of mental health issues. When we were taking parenting/adoption classes as part of our home study to adopt our children, the social workers made us aware of the possibility that our children could develop mental health issues, and that is important to be alert, in tune with your children, and to watch for any warning signs.

Even though my children were adopted at birth, I know that they have different genetics, and we didn’t have a clear family history. There have been times when our children have had some minor abandonment issues and experienced anxiety when thinking about their birth families, but we have been able to avoid any long-term issues by working closely with our family doctor to help them through the times when they have felt stress and anxiety when thinking about their adoptions.

A great resource for families of adoptive and non-adoptive children to get advice or help for their children who they might think are facing stress, anxiety or other mental health issues are at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC). I recently talked with Dr. Sharonne Herbert about what warning signs parents should be looking for in their children to know if they are experiencing mental health issues.

Dr. Herbert advised that there are some signs that parents can look for, and the biggest one is if a parent feels like their child is acting different than they normally do. They could also present physical symptoms like frequent headaches or stomach aches. They are sometimes more irritable and bothered by little situations that normally wouldn’t bother the child.

She continued to share with us that it can be hard for parents to determine if their kids are ‘just being kids’ or whether they are going through the terrible 2’s or 3’s. She mentioned that one-way parents could notice if something is not right is if the child is acting differently than their siblings did at the specific age or if they are in a play situation and acting differently than other children in the group. If there is a sudden shift in the child’s behavior, then it might be something worth looking into with your pediatrician.

When it comes to adoptive children, genetics can have an impact on mental health. Dr. Herbert shared that while we talk about nature vs. nurture, the reality is that it is a combination of the two. “Families might adopt two children from the same family, but each child comes with their own unique and specific genetics. They might have the same genetics from their birth family, but could respond to their new living environment differently,” said Dr. Herbert.

Dr. Herbert continued to say that parents should be aware of how their child is feeling. “Once your child has been adapted into your environment, and you notice a shift in behavior or emotional expression or they are having moments of remembering their previous life or birth family – it may mean that something is going on,” said Dr. Herbert. She continued to say that parents are in tune with their children and they have to go with their gut. Parents are the experts when it comes to their children whether they are adopted or not – they know their child best. “If you feel in your gut that something might be off, you are probably right. There are times when they won’t be, but more times than not, they know that something might be a little off,” said Dr. Herbert.

If you feel like your child might be exhibiting mental health issues, Dr. Herbert recommended talking with your primary care physician. Take note of the symptoms your child is exhibiting and provide that information to your pediatrician, and they will recommend what is necessary. “They might have you continue to monitor the symptoms, or they may refer you to a mental health provider,” said Dr. Herbert.

Children can exhibit mental health issues at a very young age. Dr. Herbert’s research is with preschoolers. She developed a parenting team program for parents of hyperactive preschoolers who may or may not have been diagnosed with ADHD. It can be very young, and they can develop it at any time. “Research has shown that 50 percent of persons with a lifetime mental illness experience symptoms by the age of 14. Keeping in mind that it can happen at any time,” said Dr. Herbert. She continued to share that if something is going on, it doesn’t mean that they are having a mental health issue. It could be very situational (i.e., responding to something that took place in their environment), and they will work through it and move on.

“If children don’t have coping skills, it can be hard for them to manage with different situations. It is so important to teach children about emotions. There is so much literature about how successful it is to use behavioral management strategies, and there are some great programs available that use this strategy. We know that kids have a hard time. The ability to experience emotion comes as soon as we are born, but the ability to know how to regulate those emotions is very different and comes online later. The parts of the brain essential for controlling emotions doesn’t fully develop until our early 20’s,” said Dr. Herbert.

One great tip that she shared was to be good role models for our children in regards to things that are happening in our own lives and use emotional language to describe how we are feeling. If something has happened in your life that would affect you, talk to your children about why the situation may be frustrating or upsetting, and allow your children to hear that we also struggle with the ability to regulate emotions.

Children’s Hospital of Orange County has the best doctors in the world available to help your children if they might be presenting signs of any mental health issues. If you feel that something might be off with your child, talk with your pediatrician, and if they recommend a referral bring them to Children’s Hospital of Orange County.

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