Childhood is the stage of life when health is a major concern. Younger children are not always able to express what kind of discomfort they are feeling, and since childhood is the time when most disorders and diseases in general emerge, it is very important to pay attention in case symptoms are detected.

The same goes for mental health. The appearance of a large part of the most frequent neurological disorders and disorders occurs during the first years of life, and it is very important to know how to detect mental illness in children in order to intervene as soon as possible so that its negative effects are less likely to gain strength and pose a threat to the child’s well-being.

Detecting symptoms of mental illness in childhood

It must be clear that knowing how to detect signs of mental illness is a task that must always lead to medical and psychological examinations. The diagnosis of mental disorders can only be made by accredited professionals , and neither the parents’ concern nor the child’s complaints are a valid reason to start improvised treatment outside the health system.

At the same time, we must also take into account that it is normal for children to feel bad from time to time or to perform behaviors that may seem strange to us from time to time. The chances that this has something to do with mental illness have to do with

  • If the appearance of these behaviours is more or less abrupt .
  • If it coincides with a traumatic or stressful event, or an injury .
  • The intensity of these symptoms and the degree to which they deviate from what is considered normal .
  • Whether these behaviours can lead to a impairment in the well-being of the child or someone around him/her .

When considering whether the child may be developing a mental illness, it is important to apply common sense and be clear that clinical psychologists and psychiatrists always have the last word.

Some of the symptoms to consider are:

1. Tendency to self-harm

The fact that a child tries to injure himself or herself or hits his or her head against hard objects is grounds for seeing a specialist. However, it is necessary to reflect first on the extent to which injuries are the final intention of a behaviour. For example, just because a baby tries to go down a staircase on all fours, it does not mean that he wants to fall down it; he simply does not know that it could be dangerous.

Self-injury is often associated with an inability to manage stress properly, which leads to pain to distract from other thoughts that are altogether more unpleasant.

2. Sudden mood swings

Very sudden mood swings are also indicators of mental illness, especially if it is not possible to relate them to objective events that occur around them and occur erratically. However, it should also be considered that children cry very easily, as this is part of their neurological maturation level.

3. The rejection of one’s own appearance

Non-acceptance of one’s body at an early age can be a symptom of mental illness in children. However, in cases such as gender dysphoria, the causes are considered to be fundamentally biopsychosocial and not caused by an ailment that has to do with the functioning of their body itself.

Complaints about one’s weight can also be indicative of developing eating disorders if they are persistent and have implications for the amount of food intake.

4. Irregularities at lunchtime

Eating too little or binge eating may be a sign of psychological functions that function abnormally if this poses a risk to the child’s health. From puberty onwards, the pressure to build an identity that is socially acceptable can push young people to make great sacrifices in order to look good.

5. Explosions of violence

Frequent outbursts of anger may be the result of a neurochemical imbalance in the nervous system that affects mood, or, seen from another perspective, may be the result of a pattern of behaviour that has been learned unintentionally even though it is not useful or effective.

6. The tendency to hurt others

Bullying or injuring or killing animals is also a concern, and corrective programs need to be implemented so that this behavior cannot continue. It may be due to an inability to empathize with others, or it may be that there is a problem that creates so much stress that the person acts impulsively.

7. Symptoms of disconnection from reality

This is a difficult group of symptoms to detect, as children tend to show magical thinking and enjoy fantasizing about fictional situations . The key here is to know whether this magical thinking that will disappear as their brain matures poses a risk to their well-being or that of someone else, and whether the fantasies they use to play are more than that or not.

In the case of imaginary friends , it is easy for the child to refuse to admit that he or she does not really exist despite being aware of the truth, simply so as not to break with the appearance of fantasy. In such cases it is good to find out if the imaginary friend does things that the child finds unexpected, which cause problems that cannot be controlled.

8. Tendency to isolate

Many children prefer to play alone, but some of them do so not out of shyness, but because they feel bad if there are people around, in any context. Such cases can be a reason for psychological consultation, as it could be a sign of Autism Spectrum Disorders.

9. Serious difficulties at school

Having difficulties at school may have to do with learning disorders such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, or also may be the consequence of serious mental illness (although, of course, it is often a false alarm in this respect). Childhood is a stage in which developmental disorders can leave a very negative mark on a person’s later evolution if they are not dealt with effectively.

10. Lack of motivation

The existence of an extremely passive attitude and a clear lack of initiative to carry out very elementary actions can be a sign of mental illness. Specifically, it is associated with depressive disorders.

11. Constant complaints about pain or discomfort

Of course, pain is an element that has much to say in the detection of disease. Sometimes they may refer to a headache that may be caused by abnormal functioning of certain psychological functions related to perception or concentration .