U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Your Child’s Mental Health

Your Child’s Mental Health – Pamphlet

What Every Family Should Know

If you are read these words, you are probably an adult who cares deeply about the life and health of a child. Sometimes it becomes difficult to know the best way to love and guide your child. You may notice behaviors in your child that puzzle annoy, or even frighten you. Some of these are the normal stages of growth and development. If you want to learn more about your child’s mental health, keep reading.


Mental health is how we think, feel, and act in order to face life’s situations. It is how we look at ourselves, our lives, and the people we know and care about. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, evaluate our options, and make choices. Like physical health, mental health is important at every stage of life. Everyone has mental health.


It’s easy for parents to recognize when a child has a high fever. A child’s mental health problem may be more difficult to identify. Mental health problems can’t always be seen. But the symptoms can be recognized.

Mental health problems can be diagnosed because mental health professionals have studied and documented the symptoms: Some of these problems are depression, anxiety, conduct, eating, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders.

Mental health problems affect one in every five young people at any given time.

Tragically, an estimated two-thirds of all young people with mental health problems are not getting the help they need.

Many children and adolescents have periods of emotional stress that would benefit from short-term treatment, but those problems would not necessarily result in what is called a “diagnosable” mental health problem. Examples of these mental health problems may include grieving the recent loss of a loved one or improving family relationships.

A child’s mental health has no relationship to his or her intellectual capacity. Children with and without the above mental health problems have IQ’s that range from low (mental retardation) to high.

Special education is one of the support services schools provide to help meet the unique needs of children and adolescents who have many types of mental health problems as well as the needs of children who have physical health problems. Not everyone in special education has a mental health problem, and not every child or adolescent with a mental health problem is receiving special education.


The phrase, serious emotional disturbances for children and adolescents, refers to mental health problems that are severely disrupting daily life and functioning at home, at school, or in the community. Serious emotional disturbances affect 1 in every 10 young people at any given time.

Without help, such mental health problems can lead to school failure, alcohol or other drug abuse, family discord violence, or even suicide.


We don’t know all the causes of mental health problems in young people. We do know that both environment and biology can be involved. Examples of biological causes are genetics, chemical imbalances, and damage to the central nervous system. The medical profession refers to these as neurobiological brain disorders.

Many environmental factors can put children at risk. For example, children who are exposed to violence, abuse, neglect, lead poisoning, or loss of loved ones through death, divorce, or broken relationships are more at risk for mental health problems. Other risk factors include rejection because of race, sexual orientation, religion, or poverty.


It’s important that you keep looking until you find the right services for your child. Some children and families need counseling or family supports. Others may need medical care, residential care, day treatment, education services, legal assistance, rights protection, transportation, or case management.

Some families don’t seek help because they are afraid of what other people may say or think. Other barriers also may get in the way, such as the cost of care, limited insurance benefits, or no health insurance. While these may be problems for your family, treatment is necessary. Some mental health providers and community mental health centers charge fees on a sliding-scale based on a family’s ability to pay.

Seeking help may require a lot of patience and persistence on your part. Be assured that there are several national organizations and advocacy groups that can help you find services in your community.


The National Mental Health Services Knowledge Exchange Network (KEN) has information that can help you find the services your family may need. It is a new resource of the Center for Mental Health Services. KEN has trained specialists that can give you useful information about service providers, organizations, and other local and national resources that can help you. It’s confidential, and it’s free.


As parents you are responsible for your children’s physical safety and emotional well-being. There is no one right way to raise a child. Parenting styles vary, but all caregivers should agree on expectations for your child. The following suggestions are not meant to be complete. Many good books are available in libraries or at bookstores on developmental stages, constructive problem-solving, discipline styles, and other parenting skills.

Do your best to provide a safe home and community for your child, as well as nutritious meals, regular health check-ups, immunizations, and exercise. Be aware of stages in child development so you don’t expect too much or too little from your child.

Encourage your child to express his or her feelings; respect those feelings. Let your child know that everyone experiences pain, fear, anger, and anxiety. Try to learn the source of these feelings. Help your child express anger positively, without resorting to violence.

Promote mutual respect and trust. Keep your voice level down-even when you don’t agree. Keep communication channels open.

Listen to your child. Use words and examples your child can understand. Encourage questions. Provide comfort and assurance. Be honest. Focus on the positives. Express your willingness to talk about any subject.

Look at your own problem-solving and coping skills. Are you setting a good example? Seek help if you are overwhelmed by your child’s feelings or behaviors or if you are unable to control your own frustration or

Encourage your child’s talents and accept limitations. Set goals based on the child’s abilities and interests-not someone else’s expectations. Celebrate accomplishments. Don’t compare your child’s abilities to those of other children; appreciate the uniqueness of your child. Spend time regularly with your child.

Foster your child’s independence and self-worth. Help your child deal with life’s ups and downs. Show confidence in your child’s ability to handle problems and tackle new experiences.

Discipline constructively, fairly, and consistently. (Discipline is a form of teaching, not physical punishment.) All children and families are different; learn what is effective for your child. Show approval for positive behaviors. Help your child learn from his or her mistakes.

Love unconditionally. Teach the value of apologies, cooperation, patience, forgiveness, and consideration for others. Do not expect to be perfect; parenting is a difficult job.

Every child’s mental health is important.

Many children have mental health problems.

These problems are real and painful and can be severe.

Mental health problems and can be recognized and treated.

Caring families and communities working together can help.


Call toll-free: 1.800.789.2647 other ways

FAX: 301.984.8796

TTY: 301.443.9006

Electronic Bulletin Board: 1.800.790.2647 http://www.mentalhealth.org/ or write

The National Mental Health Services Knowledge Exchange Network P.O. Box 42490, Washington, DC 20015


A variety of signs may point to a possible mental health problem in a child or teenager. Some of them are listed below.

Pay attention if a child you know:

Is troubled by feeling:

* really sad and hopeless without good reason, and the feelings don’t go away;

* very angry most of the time, cries a lot, or overreacts to things;

* worthless or guilty a lot;

* anxious or worried a lot more than other young people;

* grief for a ,prolonged time after a mss or death;

* extremely fearful–has unexplained tears or more fears than most children;

* constantly concerned about physical problems or appearance;

* frightened that his or her mind is controlled or is out of control.

Experiences big changes, for example:

* does much worse in school;

* loses interest in things usually enjoyed;

* has unexplained changes in sleeping or eating habits;

* avoids friends or family and wants to be alone all the time;

* daydreams too much and can’t get things done;

* feels life is too hard to handle or talks about suicide;

* hears voices that cannot be explained.

Is limited by:

* poor concentration; can t make decisions;

* inability to sit still or focus attention;

* worry about being harmed, hurting others, or about doing something “bad”;

* the need to wash, clean things, or perform certain routines dozens of times a day;

* thoughts that race almost too fast to follow;

* persistent nightmares.

Behaves in ways that cause problems, for example:

* uses alcohol or other drugs;

* eats large amounts of food and then forces vomiting, abuses laxatives, or takes enemas to avoid weight gain;

* continues to diet or exercise obsessively although bone-thin;

* often hurts other people, destroys property, or breaks the law;

* does things that can be lift- threatening.


If your child has experienced any of the WARNING SIGNS below, or if the symptoms are severe, seek help immediately. Talk to your doctor, a school counselor, or other mental health professional who is trained to assess whether or not your child has a mental health problem.


Communities Together is a national public education campaign emphasizing the need for attention to children’s and adolescents’ mental health. It is an integral part of the Comprehensive Community Mental Health Services for Children and Their Families Program, demonstrating effective home- and community-based services across the country. This public/private sector campaign is managed by the Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

For information about children’s and adolescents’ mental health, contact the

COPYRIGHT 1998 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group