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Understanding Child Mental Health

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

Child mental health has been an issue of debate for many years. That is because when we typically think of mental health and mental health issues, we often just associate it with adults. Research, however, has shown that worldwide, 10 – 20 % of children and adolescents experience mental health conditions.

Child mental health can be defined as the complete well-being and optimal development of

a child in the social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral domains. Childhood and

adolescence are critical stages of development. During these periods, children grapple with

unique and distinct developmental milestones.

Good mental health enables children to navigate these developmental milestones healthily as well as to develop the resilience to cope with life stressors and grow into healthy functioning adults.

Mental health challenges in children are usually a direct response of what is happening in

their lives. Failure to address mental health challenges in children and adolescents may have

long-term consequences that extend into their adulthood and limit their opportunities for

leading fulfilling lives and reaching their full potential.

Key Areas of functioning and risk factors

As children grow, they develop in various ways. The key areas of functioning and

development include emotional, social, cognitive as well as physical domains. How children

behave, think, form relationships and acquire physical skills paint a picture of their

development. While every child achieves develops at their own pace, there a general skills

they should acquire at specific ages, which are known as developmental milestones.

How children successfully reach their developmental milestones in each stage of their

development depends significantly on their environment. The quality of the environment in

which children are nurtured shapes their well-being and development. Early negative

experiences (family, schools, violence, social media, poverty, etc.) and the unsuccessful

resolution of such experiences increase the risk of mental illness. Genetics also pose a risk to

the development of a mental illness, however the exposure to a parent of caregiver’s

mental illness can also increase the risk of mental illness.

Bad experiences alone don’t necessarily lead to mental health problems in children,

however traumatic events can trigger problems in already vulnerable children. Therefore,

non-supportive and uncontaining environments may lead to the development of unhealthy

coping skills and ultimately mental illness. Alternatively, consistent supportive interactions

may facilitate the development of healthy coping skills as well as greater prospects for

healthy mental health.

Mental Disorders

The mental health issues children may experience may be reflected as difficulties in their

key areas of functioning. When these issues are constant, are severe, and cause

disturbances to normal functioning (at home, school and social situations) , they are defined

as mental health disorders.

The most common mental disorders found in children include:

  • ADHD

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Depressive disorders

  • Autism spectrum disorders

  • Adjustment disorders

  • Substance-related disorders

  • Feeding and eating disorders

  • Elimination disorders

What to look out for in your child:

  • Drastic changes in your child’s mood, behaviour or personality.

  • Persistent sadness and withdrawing/avoiding social interactions

  • Extreme irritability which leads to outbursts.

  • Talking about death/suicide.

  • Self-harm.

  • Risky behaviours that could result in harm.

  • Changes in eating habits (unhealthy).

  • Academic decline and negative behavioural changes at school.

  • Difficulties in concentrating and completing tasks.

What to do if you think your child has mental health problems:

If you have reasons for concern, talk to your child’s teacher and other caregivers to see if

they have noticed any changes in your child’s mood or behaviour. Seek professional help,

such as your doctor (to eliminate medical problems) or seek the help of a psychologist for

interventions that can promote your child’s well-being prevent the escalation of problems.

Lerato Raboshakga

Clinical Psychologist

Psych Central Menlyn

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