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Health and Wellness: What’s causing the rise in pediatric behavioral health issues?

By Ruth Caldwell - Special to the Daily Herald | Sep 28, 2022

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Did you know that about 20% of kids in the US suffer from a mental disorder? And that only 20% of those kids receive treatment? From anxiety, depression, OCD to ADD and ADHD, behavioral health issues (which encompass mental and physical health) seem to be on the rise among children. 

In response, we at Utah Valley Pediatrics have started screening more vigilantly for anxiety and depression so we can better support children and parents. As parents or caregivers, what signs or symptoms should you look out for? What are the underlying causes of behavioral health issues? And what can you do to help the children you care for? As a pediatric nurse practitioner, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many children experiencing these issues over the years, and here is some of what I have learned:

Signs and symptoms to watch for

The signs and symptoms of behavioral health issues vary from child to child and can range from mild to severe. On the milder end of the scale, many children internalize their stress, experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety and depression as a result. These symptoms could include stomach pain, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping, headaches and chest pain. These symptoms are common, particularly in children aged around 9 to 11, but can be diagnosed as early as 4 to 8 years old.

These physical symptoms can develop into psychological symptoms like irritability, school avoidance, sadness, panic attacks, trouble concentrating, and a loss of interest in things they used to like. Those signs and symptoms can escalate to self-harm and suicide ideation.

You may also notice behavioral problems or risky behaviors, particularly as children turn into teenagers. But how can you know what is typical teenage behavior and what might be a sign of a problem? Teenagers often want to be independent and go off on their own, but if it gets to a point where they’re refusing to go to school, having behavioral problems or struggling to sleep or eat well, that may indicate that they are struggling with mental or behavioral health problems. 

Underlying causes of behavioral health issues

There are lots of potential causes of behavioral health issues. The following are just a few!

When schools were shut down during the pandemic, isolation was a key factor in many adolescents’ behavioral health problems. In fact, “71% of parents said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health,” according to Ashley Abramson at the American Psychological Association. “A national survey of 3,300 high schoolers conducted in spring 2020 found close to a third of students felt unhappy and depressed much more than usual.”

Outside of pandemic-related causes, other underlying causes of behavioral health issues include trouble with friends and bullying, particularly through social media. Other sources of adversity can also contribute to health issues: struggles at home and school, learning disabilities, overscheduling and socioeconomic problems, to name a few.

Finally, family history is a strong component in behavioral health problems. If parents are being treated for mental illness, it’s important to be vigilant in noticing potential behavioral health problems in their children.

What parents can do

When these troubling issues arise, what can parents do to help their children? Parents may be reluctant to pursue behavioral health treatment because they’re afraid — which is understandable. It’s certainly a difficult challenge to face. The good news is there are many resources and things you can do to help your child. Here are a few suggestions to try:

  • Limit and review your child’s social media use. 
  • Keep communication open.
  • Take advantage of online resources, like http://healthychildren.org, which has lots of helpful suggestions and answers to your questions.
  • Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you start to notice things that concern you. If symptoms are moderate to severe, the provider may recommend that they start cognitive behavioral therapy.

What about prevention? It’s important to establish habits as a parent that support your child’s healthy development. Consider trying some of these:

  • Make sure your child is exercising, sleeping and eating well.
  • Help your child develop good relationships. Help them be close to members of their family and have at least one good friend.
  • Work with your child to find an activity they enjoy, and help them excel at it to build self-esteem.
  • Let them relax, play and have downtime.
  • Take them to their annual well-child visit, even if you think everything is all right. The screenings we use can help pick up on issues before they become problems. 

As you raise your child, know the signs and symptoms of behavioral health issues, be aware of the underlying causes that may be at play and know that there are resources available to help you and your child if these issues arise. As http://healthychildren.org expresses so well, “Children need to realize that the world is a better place because they are in it.” Every night at bedtime, regardless of their age or the struggles of the day, children and youth need to know they’re safe and loved. You are instrumental in providing that assurance for your child. You can do it!

Ruth Caldwell is a nurse practitioner at Utah Valley Pediatrics, which serves Utah families in nine locations throughout Utah Valley.

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