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The Basics of Childhood Mental Disorders

The Basics of Childhood Mental Disorders

We often discuss mental health in the context of adults, and even teenagers. But, mental health concerns can arise earlier in life, and they are just as necessary to talk about. 

In 2016, 16.5%, about 7.7 million youth in the U.S., age 6-17, experienced a mental health disorder. These struggles begin earlier than you may think.

Young boy with text about childhood mental disorders in the U.S.

What do childhood mental disorders look like?

All children deal with everyday fears, worries, and disruptive behavior. It is a fact of growing up. But, When these behaviors are frequent, severe, or they interfere with a child’s ability to manage things like schoolwork, they may be diagnosed with a mental disorder.

The most commonly diagnosed childhood mental disorders are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavior problems, anxiety, and depression. 


Children with ADHD experience a lack of focus, hyperactivity, and impulsive behaviors. Many children with ADHD are first diagnosed after trouble with their schoolwork or increased distraction and disruption while at school. 

ADHD occurs more often in boys than in girls. 

Behavior Problems

Behavioral disorders, also known as externalizing disorders, are characterized by aggressive or defiant behavior that is frequent or severe. Two behavioral disorders that can affect children are oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder (CD).

Young girl with text about the four most common childhood mental disorders: ADHD, behavioral problems, anxiety, and depression.


Anxiety in children can manifest in many different ways, including separation anxiety, phobias, social anxiety, general anxiety, and panic disorder. 

According to the CDC, “Anxiety may present as fear or worry, but can also make children irritable and angry. Anxiety symptoms can also include trouble sleeping, as well as physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, or stomachaches.” 


While depression is less common in younger children than behavioral disorders, the rate increases as children age into adolescence and teenhood. 

There are many warning signs of depression, including increased sleep, changes in appetite or weight, trouble concentrating, or spending less time with loved ones. 

What are the risks of untreated mental disorders?

Of those 7.7 million children with a mental disorder in 2016, only half of them pursued treatment

If left untreated, mental disorders can persist and grow into larger issues as a child gets older. 

Image with text about the treatment rate of childhood mental disorders.

In adults, many mental disorders, like ADHD, anxiety, and depression, correlate with a substance use disorder. The rate is even higher with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. 

Mental illnesses also contribute to an increased risk of suicide. For people ages 10-34, suicide is the second leading cause of death. 

What do I do if my child is struggling?

First and foremost, do not hesitate to talk with your child. Keeping the lines of communication open, with all topics, can encourage your child to speak to you when they are struggling. If something about their behavior seems off, ask them.

Tips for speaking to your child about difficult topics. 

If you believe your child is suffering from a mental disorder, contact a doctor. There are multiple methods of treatment, and a doctor can help you decide what is best for your child. 

Finally, remember that a mental disorder is not your child’s fault. With patience and kindness, you can help them through it with success.

Lauren Stockam

Lauren is the Public Relations intern at Safe and Sober. She is a graduate student at Missouri State University.