No. 74; March 2011
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According to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General (1999), 1 in 5 will experience signs and symptoms of a psychiatric disorder during the course of the year. Some nine million children have serious emotional problems at any point in time. Yet, only 1 in 5 of these children are receiving appropriate treatment. When parents or teachers suspect that a child may have an emotional problem, they should seek a comprehensive evaluation by a mental health professional specifically trained to work with children and adolescents.

Signs and symptoms of childhood and adolescent emotional problems may include:

  • School problems
  • Frequent fighting
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feeling sad
  • Thoughts about suicide or running away
  • Excessive weight loss or gain
  • Troubling or disturbing thoughts
  • Use of drugs or alcohol
  • Withdraw or isolation
  • Injuring or killing animals
  • Stealing or lying
  • Mood swings
  • Setting fires
  • Obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors
  • Dangerous or self destructive behavior
  • Trouble paying attention
  • Anxiety or frequent worries

Throughout the evaluation process, parents should be directly involved and ask many questions. It's important to make sure you understand the results of the evaluation, your child's diagnosis, and the full range of treatment options. If parents are not comfortable with a particular clinician, treatment option, or are confused about specific recommendations, they should consider a second opinion.

Before a child begins treatment, parents may also want to ask the following:

  • What are the recommended treatment options for my child?
  • How will I be involved with my child's treatment?
  • How will we know if the treatment is working?
  • How long should it take before I see improvement?
  • Does my child need medication?
  • What should I do if the problems get worse?
  • What are the arrangements if I need to reach you after-hours or in an emergency?

You may also need to advocate to have your child seen in a timely way, by the most appropriate clinician. Most insurance plans now include some form of managed care, which may utilize provider panels with few mental health professionals. However, many states now have laws concerning reasonable access to specialists. If you have problems or questions, try calling the Department of Insurance, the Patient Ombudsman/Advocate, or the Department of Consumer Affairs at your insurance company.

Ongoing parental involvement and support are essential to the overall success of treatment. Depending on the nature of your child's problems, it may also be important to involve the school, community agencies, and/or juvenile justice system. In addition, it may be helpful to learn how to access other support services such as respite, parent skill building, or home-based programs. Local advocacy groups can also provide valuable information, experience and support for parents.

Although serious emotional problems are common in childhood and adolescence, they are also highly treatable. By advocating for early identification, comprehensive evaluation and appropriate intervention, parents can make sure their children get the help they need, and reduce the risk of long term emotional difficulties.

For additional information see Facts for Families:
#00 Definition of a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
#24 Know When to Seek Help for Your Child
#25 Know Where to Seek Help for Your Child
#26 Know Your Health Insurance Benefits
#52 Comprehensive Psychiatric Evaluation

For more information about parent advocacy, contact:

Federation of Families for Children's
Mental Health
(703) 684-7710
1021 Prince Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-2971

National Alliance of the Mentally Ill
Colonial Place Three (703) 524-7600
2107 Wilson Blvd-3rd Floor
Arlington, VA 22201

National Mental Health Association
(703) 684-7722
1021 Prince Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-2971

See also: Your Child (1998 Harper Collins) / Your Adolescent (1999 Harper Collins)

Click here to order Your Child from Harper Collins
Click here to order Your Adolescent from Harper Collins

If you find Facts for Families© helpful and would like to make good mental health a reality, consider donating to the Campaign for America’s Kids. Your support will help us continue to produce and distribute Facts for Families, as well as other vital mental health information, free of charge.

You may also mail in your contribution. Please make checks payable to the AACAP and send to Campaign for America’s Kids, P.O. Box 96106, Washington, DC 20090.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) represents over 8,700 child and adolescent psychiatrists who are physicians with at least five years of additional training beyond medical school in general (adult) and child and adolescent psychiatry.

Facts for Families© information sheets are developed, owned and distributed by AACAP. Hard copies of Facts sheets may be reproduced for personal or educational use without written permission, but cannot be included in material presented for sale or profit. All Facts can be viewed and printed from the AACAP website ( Facts sheets may not be reproduced, duplicated or posted on any other website without written consent from AACAP. Organizations are permitted to create links to AACAP's website and specific Facts sheets. For all questions please contact the AACAP Communications & Marketing Coordinator, ext. 154.

If you need immediate assistance, please dial 911.

Copyright © 2014 by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.