If You Suspect Your Child Has a Mental Illness

Is your child acting out or showing unusual behavior that is resistant to change? Have you noticed a severe decline in school performance, frequent outbursts of anger, or potentially life-threatening actions? Do you wonder when temper tantrums or a stubborn nature go beyond what is typical? Is your youngster acting fearful, depressed or aggressive to the point of setting fires or killing animals? When problems are severe, persistent and disrupt daily life, you may be dealing with a biologically and organically based mental illness that, despite your best efforts as a parent, will require expert medical intervention.

Dr. Phil offers this advice as you try to get to the root of what may be a biological, brain or development problem and find appropriate help:

  • Don't experience guilt, blame or shame. It is not your fault if your child is not responding the way other children seem to. You are most likely doing the best you can as a responsible, loving, caring, nurturing parent, but all the love you have in your heart is not enough to help a child overcome a biologically based mental illness.
  • Reach out for professional help. Begin with your pediatrician, and then be open to referrals to specialists in the fields of child psychiatry, neurology, endocrinology, nutrition and other appropriate disciplines for both diagnosis and treatment. A major part of any solution lies within defining the problem, so a differential diagnosis from medical experts is critical. You cannot do this alone. Be patient as you put together a multi-disciplinary team of professionals that you trust and think is right for your child.
  • When you meet with the experts, do not be passive. Ask questions. No one knows your child better than you and nobody in this world wants the best for your child as passionately as you do. You may not have a medical background, but your questions and observations will be helpful. Ask about possible biochemical imbalances or brain disorders, which may be the foundation of your child's symptomology.
  • Become a part of your child's multi-disciplinary management team. While you are not to blame, you do have a very important role in helping your child achieve the best level of adjustment. As the leader of your family, you can create a family and home situation that will be fertile ground for re-parenting your child as part of the treatment plan. You may need to make additional sacrifices in order to start committing more time to your family.
  • Be open to all solutions, even things you might initially want to dismiss. Just because you don't agree wholeheartedly with an avenue of approach doesn't mean it might not work in your family. Don't slam the door on certain alternatives or coping tools without exploring them completely first. Now is not the time to be judgmental or resist some tools and resources that may genuinely help you.
  • Reassure your child that your home is a safe place where he is loved and cared about. It can only help your child to know that you will stand by his side and help him get through it. Keep communication channels with your child open. Encourage him to ask questions and express feelings, and be ready and available to listen.
  • Stay calm. You may feel helpless, frustrated, exhausted, scared and countless other emotions, but you need to stay in charge of yourself in order to inspire confidence and have a stabilizing effect on the rest of the family.
  • Remove danger. Depending on what signs your child is exhibiting that concern you, be cautious about potential physical or emotional danger. For example, consider confiscating dangerous objects or avoiding certain people. This won't help you get to the cause of your child's issue, but it will protect him in the meantime.
  • Do not attack or blame your child. With the help of a multi-disciplinary team, you will get to the core of the problem and find a solution. Indicting the child or punishing him will not help you reach your goal of getting the help, support and long-term solution that you need. 
  • Beware of labels. Using the term "mentally ill" around your child can be detrimental. A child's interpretation can cause them to demonize themselves, invoking shame and guilt. For adults, Dr. Phil advocates for an open dialogue about mental illness, but for kids, it can snowball into terms like "crazy," "whacko," "weird," and then they may live to their label.
  • Close ranks. Communicate with the rest of your family, be open and honest with your concerns, and support one another. Family unity is essential for getting through troubled times.
  • Draw on other resources. In addition to a multi-disciplinary medical team, consider speaking with clergy members, your child's teachers or school counselor, your friends and local support groups.
  • Take one day at a time. If you haven't yet gotten a diagnosis for your child, worrying about the future is not going to help you. First you need to get more information and resources, and then you need to move forward with a diagnosis and a treatment plan.
  • Recognize that this is a challenge you will manage. Life is not a success-only journey. You may have a difficult road ahead of you as you begin to find help for your child, but your family will emerge stronger, healthier and more bonded.

    TELL DR. PHIL YOUR STORY: Life in crisis?

Around the Web