A recent study published in The New York Post reported that 1 in 5 preteens may have mental health issues. With preteen and teen angst so prevalent, it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose mental health problems.
While parents need to know the signs of mental health concerns, there’s also the danger of overreacting to typical behavior in this age group.
There was a time when it seemed that every other boisterous child was being diagnosed as hyperactive and having ADHD or ADD. Cautious labeling has become the norm now. While there may be a reluctance to brand a preteen with the stigma of depression or mental health problems, the result of misdiagnosis or lack of treatment for mental illness has resulted in terrifying situations like the horrifying Newtown, Connecticut school massacre.
“We need to be cognizant to not make a snap judgment because a child is acting differently,” says Christopher Mooney, LMSW, CASAC, case manager at Koved Care, a psychiatric care management company. “The more education we have around mental health issues, the more accurate diagnosis and treatment will be.”
Is it mental illness or typical teen behavior?
Preteens are under a lot of stress. Dealing with physical changes, trying to fit in and coping with not-so-friendly peers are just the tip of the iceberg. Moodiness is a precursor of what’s to come in the teen years. But when do parents have to worry about their preteen having more than just a bad day?
“If a child is having increased and more intense behavioral issues that are noticeable in the home, among peers and socially, parents should have their child talk to someone,” says Mooney. The most important thing is to know that mental health issues are addressable and treatable.
Be aware, however, that diagnosing mental illness in children is difficult and psychiatric disorders are often not determined until a person has fully matured, usually between 18 and 20 years old. “Kids are not fully developed and are, by definition, emotionally irregular. This is part of normal development,” says Mooney. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait years for attention and treatment if you have concerns about your child’s behavior now.
When should parents take action?
You know your child best. Mood swings could be indicative of something more sinister, or they could just be a preteen’s way of testing boundaries. “Parents may notice small things in their child that seem unusual, like frequent anger, agitation and mood changes,” says Mooney, adding that symptoms of mental illness are often behavioral in nature.
Preteens with an underlying mental illness are susceptible to self-regulating with drugs or alcohol, Mooney adds. Sometimes it’s more than just natural curiosity or peer pressure that’s encouraging your child to make poor decisions about dangerous substances.
If you suspect a greater problem is at hand than just teen angst, don’t jump to conclusions about your child; consult a qualified mental health professional who is trained to separate normal from abnormal behavior and will complete a full assessment of your preteen, Mooney advises. “Often a clinician must consider more than the symptoms a preteen presents with to avoid misdiagnosis. Assessment of the child’s family dynamic, social and peer interaction and educational development are helpful in obtaining a more accurate understanding of the child,” he adds.
Breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness
No parent wants their child to be burdened by the social stigma that, sadly, still surrounds mental illness, but the alternative is misdiagnosis, which could lead to disastrous consequences for the preteen, and others.
“The most important thing is educating families and communities on what it means to live with a mental illness. Mental health issues are treatable and there is help for loved ones,” says Mooney. “We have to emphasize that most individuals living with mental health disorders are non-violent. Due to recent events, it has become easy to make generalizations about people with mental health issues. We have to remember that people with psychiatric and mood disorders can live normal, meaningful and fulfilled lives with continued treatment and consistent care.”