Do You Know the Signs of a Child Who’s Hurting? 

We’re right in the midst of the holiday season, and for most it is a time filled with joy – a time to cherish those moments spent with close family and friends. But for others, this time of year is a reminder of hurt and pain one might be going through. We recognize hurt, sadness, anxiety, and depression in ourselves and other adults much more easily than we recognize it in children. However, as these early years are so formative, if a child is experiencing some problems with mental health, now is the time to seek help!

Although not as frequent as in adults, children as young as elementary school age may experience anxiety, depression, or behavioral problems. These issues are being diagnosed more often now; in college-age children they are 5-8 times more common now than in the 1950’s. Studies have shown that they are truly more prevalent, and not simply a matter of physicians recognizing them better or over-diagnosing. There are interesting psychology studies into this phenomenon, but I do not want to focus on the why. Instead, I want to help you recognize how to recognize signs of a child who may be hurting with worry or sadness, because they may not be as easy to spot as you think.

Children who are sad or worried usually do not express these feelings the same way adults do. One of the most common signs of depression or anxiety in children is actually acting out. If their behavior starts to become more aggressive, more irritable, or more restless than usual, start to watch more closely or ask your doctor about it.

A decline in school grades, nightmares, or disobeying adults more often may be indicative of larger issues. Fidgeting is also a behavior introverted children will exhibit – sometimes without realizing it – to deal with their anxiety. Another example could be a specific fear. For example, if a child is suddenly not wanting to go to school or see certain people, it may be that something has made them feel anxious or less safe about a specific environment, so inquire about that.

Statistics show that as many as one in five children have a diagnosable mental health problem, but only two-thirds of those children are getting help. I don’t think the children being “missed” are from neglect; rather, I believe we have a tendency to view behavior as “just a phase.” The realization that something is going on that may improve with counseling or help from a professional could certainly help a child in the future.

Many children do not recognize or know how to verbalize how they are feeling. But, no one knows your child better than you. That’s a good thing. Sometimes that means you recognize changes, and sometimes you are so close that it takes someone from the outside looking in – for example, a teacher or friend – to see the warning signs. If you have any concerns and do not know where to start, you can always talk to your physician. Most pediatricians should be able to help you get the care you need.

More than anything, it’s important that all children know they’re not alone.

Jennifer Adair M.D.

Jennifer Adair, M.D., was born and raised in Mobile. She graduated from Davidson High School in 2002 and received her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry at The University of Alabama in 2006. She completed her medical training at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, and pediatric residency at the University of Nevada College of Medicine – Las Vegas and the University of South Alabama. She joined Children’s Medical Group in July 2013 and currently practices at their Airport office. Jennifer and her husband, Cory, reside in Mobile with their dogs, Fitz and Barkley.