January 24, 2023
As mental health issues become more prominent among teens and children, many continue to search for answers. Simon Ovanessian, MD, director of psychiatry at the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, says parents should always be aware of signs that their child is experiencing pain, whether physical or emotional. The trick is to see or hear the sign based on the child’s ability to communicate, he says. “There are certainly signs of mental health problems in children, but how they develop depends on the child’s age and communication skills,” he says.
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Age for age
Dr. Ovanessian offers the following age-based guideline:
- Birth to 6 or 7 years. “Kids this young age don’t have the vocabulary or courage to tell people they’re sad, can’t sleep, or want to kill themselves,” he says. Instead, parents should be alerted to their behavior, especially sudden changes. Are they more hyperactive or more behaving? Are they trying to withdraw and isolate themselves?
- Age 7 to early adolescence. Young people are fixated on their personal appearance at this point despite increasing peer pressure at school. Teachers and parents should be aware if a child suddenly doesn’t care about how they look, takes extreme measures such as getting multiple piercings, engages in harmful behavior, or becomes more promiscuous.
- Age 12 to 18. This is when social media has a huge impact on what teens think, feel and act on, says Dr. Ovanessian. “They see different ideas, like suicide, and social media normalizes them,” he notes. This is also the age when people are more likely to turn to what he calls “soothing methods,” such as tobacco, drugs, alcohol, and even self-mutilation.
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How to help
Regardless of age, listening is the most important thing an adult can do for a child in emotional distress. Consider asking supportive questions such as “Can you tell me what’s going on?” and “What do you think?” to gain insight. “You may have to try it a few times because it’s not something you can easily talk about,” says Dr. Ovanessian. Teachers can pull an older child aside with a sincere offer to talk.
News stories can spark conversations with older children. If talking leads to self-mutilation, setting fires, or other drastic behavior, it’s a clear sign, says Dr. Ovanessian, to seek professional evaluation. This could be through a trip to the emergency department or an assessment by a school or private counselor.
“If a child talks about it, it’s time to get help,” he says.