Mental Health Challenges

What are the signs that a child or youth are struggling with their mental health?

We often look for change in a child or youth’s behaviour, mood, sleeping or eating habits, frequent crying, changes in school performance and/or attendance, social withdrawals and long-lasting irritability. This can be tricky because mental health symptoms in young people don’t always look like what we might expect.

There are many factors that contribute to mental health challenges such as genetics; abnormalities in the functioning of brain circuits that involved emotional processing; chronic stress or medical illness, isolation and poor coping strategies.

Early intervention is important. If you notice significant behaviour challenges such as sadness, withdrawn or is socially isolated, or aggression or irritation, it is recommended that you seek support. A family doctor or paediatrician can rule out medical concerns as contributing factors. Mental health challenges are fairly common in neurodiverse children and youth. There are many evidenced based treatments to improve mental wellness and help young people thrive in life.

Anxiety

Neurodiverse youth may experience excessive worry or fear. This is often related to peer interactions, school work, fear of being separated from family members, or might include a phobia such as fear of the dark.

It’s important to understand that some worry is normal and healthy. We might feel worry when we are about to try something new or when we are faced with a situation where we think we might not succeed. If we never experienced some worry we wouldn’t grow our skills and we would miss out on many joys in life. It is important for all of us to learn and practice “pushing through” when we are feeling worried. We sometimes call this “riding the wave”. We might learn to breathe and count to 10 or use another mindfulness exercise to help calm our body and mind before engaging. A healthy lifestyle that includes regular daily physical activity, being outdoors, eating well and getting enough sleep is also very helpful.

That said, anxiety is real and if left untreated can become debilitating. Instead of “riding the wave” of worry children and youth learn to avoid and escape from uncomfortable situations. Avoidance feels great. There are no more physical signals such as tummy upset or headaches, or in extreme situations even vomiting and diarrhea. Unfortunately, when a child uses avoidance strategies they don’t learn how to cope with their worry. The more a child avoids the less they engage in activities. Children may interact less with peers and miss out on opportunities to learn and fully engage in their world.

Understanding anxiety in the context of a child or youth with a neurodevelopmental condition is important. As way of an example let’s consider a child that has a condition that causes them to have a lot of sensory challenges such as Autism Spectrum Disorder or a motor planning disorder such as Developmental Coordination Disorder. These children can become afraid of somatic events associated with Anxiety or worry, if they don’t have the ability to recognize body signals and label and express the emotion(s) being felt. Children and youth may respond to excess worry by running away, hitting or yelling, or hiding under a desk at school or a bed at home. These are fight, flight and freeze responses that are reactive behaviours typical for young people who are unable to expressive their emotions, including feeling worried.

If you are concerned that your child or youth may be experiencing anxiety there are many evidenced based interventions that can help. Individual and group interventions based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; Expressive Play Therapies especially for young children and children with mild to moderate developmental delays; Psycho-education about anxiety for children, youth and parent/caregivers, and in some cases, medication can be helpful.

Depression

A child or youth who is showing symptoms of Depression might have excessive feelings of sadness, low and/or rapid changes in mood. Other signs might include relatively recent changes in their functioning, including sleeping, eating, social withdrawal, decline in academic performance and/or attendance, and long-lasting irritability. This can be tricky to assess as the social emotional development of youth changes rapidly during the teen years. Some young children may experience challenging behaviours together with sadness and withdrawal. Any symptoms are most concerning when they are sudden or noticeable changes in a child or youth’s functioning. When in doubt, consult with a professional.

Early intervention is important. Similar to other mental health challenges Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; Expressive Play Therapies especially for young children and children with mild to moderate developmental delays; Psycho-education about depressive conditions for children, youth and parent/caregivers, and in some cases, medication can be helpful.