Mental disorders in children and adolescents: symptoms and warning signals

Warning signals for possibly existing illness

04/10/2015 by Dr. Christine Amrhein

  • Mental illnesses are not uncommon in children and adolescents: they affect around 20 percent of those under the age of 18.
  • Temporary, development-related abnormalities must be differentiated from diseases requiring treatment.
  • Parents should contact a specialist if the abnormalities suddenly appear, are pronounced, persist for a long time and if they put a lot of strain on the child, the adolescent or his caregivers.
  • Suitable contacts are psychologists, child and adolescent psychotherapists or child and adolescent psychiatrists.
  • Therapy includes comprehensive, disorder-related diagnostics and treatment that spans several components. It includes psychotherapy, psychosocial measures and, in some cases, drug treatment.

Psychological difficulties: Temporary part of normal development or illness requiring treatment

Psychological problems and illnesses can also affect children and adolescents. Many young people experience temporary psychological difficulties as they develop. These are often mild and can be part of normal development. For some children and adolescents, however, the problems persist for a long time and are so severe that they require treatment.

The difficulties can be of very different kinds: They can show up in behavioral problems, disturbances in attention, impaired mood or as physical symptoms or impairments.

Some clinical pictures in children and adolescents are similar to those in adults – but they often express themselves in slightly different symptoms. Young people can also suffer from anxiety or depression or stand out due to aggressive or impulsive behavior. Other clinical pictures are typical of a certain age and only occur in children and adolescents – for example difficulties in developing the language or unwanted wetting (enuresis).

diverse factors contribute to the development of such disorders. These include stress and difficult relationships in the family, unfavorable parenting behavior, difficulties at school or with peers, but also individual characteristics such as the personality of the child or genetic traits that can favor the development of some mental disorders.

Warning signals: Then parents should seek professional help

Almost all children and adolescents behave temporarily, or their development is worrying for their parents for a while. The abnormalities are often only temporary or can be remedied with relatively simple means.

However, there are warning signals that indicate that there is an actually more serious problem in which it makes sense to seek professional help. This is e.g. B. the case when a child or adolescent suddenly changes significantly and for no apparent reason. An unusual behavior or symptom that occurs in phases and disappears for a certain time (e.g. marked listlessness and depression) can also be an indication of a disorder requiring treatment.

It is also problematic if the symptoms persist for several weeks, are pronounced and / or occur very frequently. If the parents find that teachers, nursery school teachers or grandparents also report abnormalities and are concerned, this indicates that the problems occur in many situations – and that it can make sense to seek professional support. This is also the case if the child and / or the parents feel heavily burdened by the problem.

Competent support for parents

Parents can receive targeted help from a psychologist, child and adolescent psychotherapist or child and adolescent psychiatrist: he can assess whether the psychological abnormalities require treatment and which type of therapy is most suitable. The pediatrician or family doctor can also be a first point of contact. He can get an idea of ​​the problem and, if necessary, refer the child or adolescent to a specialist.

If there is a mental illness, in many cases a so-called multimodal therapy is carried out: Here different therapy measures are combined with one another, so as possible quality To create conditions for an improvement.

The focus is on psychotherapeutic treatment that is specifically tailored to the problems of the child or adolescent. Further elements are education and consultation of the parents, family therapy measures (e.g. discussions with the whole family, therapy measures within the family), measures in kindergarten or school and in some cases also drug treatment.

This therapy can often be carried out on an outpatient basis. In the case of severe problems, or if there are several mental illnesses at the same time, inpatient or semi-inpatient treatment in a child and adolescent psychiatric clinic makes sense.


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Christina Cherry
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