The other morning, my eight-year-old son walked into my bedroom, and with a half-smile asked, “Mom, do I have cancer? My ankle hurts.” I ruffled his hair playfully and explained that his sore ankle was likely a result of his new obsession with his two-wheeled scooter and not a malignant tumour. And then I sighed, because as a life-long anxiety sufferer, I realized that I may have passed him my anxiety genes.
1 in 5 Ontario children and youth has a mental-health problem. That’s a staggering statistic. That means that out of 100 students, 20 are dealing with some form of anxiety, depression, eating disorder, self-mutilation and so on.
So how do you know if you child is suffering from a mental illness? Rona Maynard, author of My Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir, and the author of a white paper for RBC called Silent Families, Suffering Children and Youth, was available to share the five signs to look for. Fortunately, our generation is talking about mental health a lot. And this talking is leading to better outcomes for children and their families.
“You know your child better than anyone,” Rona reminds us. “If the child you know starts acting differently, you’re going to notice. There are five warning signs you should watch for, just as you already watch for fevers, rashes and the other physical ailments on every parent’s radar screen.”
Anxiety disorders in children
1. Watch for mood changes or swings
A child in the dumps not just on a bad day but day after day. Maybe your once-enthusiastic young soccer player no longer wants to go to practice. Or a kid who once looked forward to sleepovers no longer shows interest in having friends over.
2. Watch for anxiety.
Remember when Nurse Jackie’s daughter Grace couldn’t stop worrying about the flu and bubonic plague? That was a symptom of anxiety. I learned about this one the hard way because I too was an anxious kid, always fearing the worst possible scenario. If my parents were ever late coming home from a shopping trip, I was terrified that they’d been killed in an accident. Here are a six tips that can help you calm your anxious child.
3. A sudden dip in grades
Your child could be having trouble concentrating. A young person who’s floundering in the classroom can may start to fear going to school, setting a downward spiral in motion.
4. Heightened emotions
In some kids this is the first sign you’ll notice. They may experience anger or fear that seems to come from nowhere.
5. Acting out
The formerly well-behaved child who starts stealing from you or hurting other kids. Every child is bound to have bad days, so you shouldn’t worry just because your oldest hit your youngest today. What you want to be alert for is a pattern—a persistent, concerning change.
What should parents do if they suspect their child may be suffering from a true mental illness? Maynard offers a five-point action plan.
1. Assess the situation
What seems to trigger the behaviour that concerns you? Is it most apparent at a particular time of day? For example, does bedtime trigger anxiety?
2. Educate yourself
There are excellent resources available online, but there’s also lots of misinformation. According to the 2012 RBC Children’s Mental Health Parents Poll, 80 percent of parents who have looked for answers to their questions on the topic, more than half say that finding trustworthy information is “a nightmare.”
3. Talk to your child
Kids clam up at questions like “Is everything okay?” (which implies that the only right answer is “yes”). Try an exploratory question like, “You seem worried about going to school these days. Are you having trouble keeping up?”
4. Get the big picture
Talk to other people who know your child well — the teacher, coach, regular caregiver or any relatives actively involved in the child’s life. Have they noticed anything different lately? Now you’re ready to talk with your family doctor. The more information you can share besides “I’m worried about my child,” the more helpful your doctor can be.
5. Have hope
Remember, a history of mental illness doesn’t have to stop anyone from anything. I suffered from a childhood mental illness, yet I reached the top of my profession.