Although it is sometimes assumed that childhood and adolescence are times of carefree bliss, as many as 20% of children and adolescents have one or more diagnosable mental disorders. Most of these disorders may be viewed as exaggerations or distortions of normal behaviors and emotions.
Like adults, children and adolescents vary in temperament. Some are shy and reticent; others are socially exuberant. Some are methodical and cautious; others are impulsive and careless. Whether a child is behaving like a typical child or has a disorder is determined by the presence of impairment and the degree of distress related to the symptoms. For example, a 12-yr-old girl may be frightened by the prospect of delivering a book report in front of her class. This fear would be viewed as social phobia only if her fears were severe enough to cause significant impairments and distress.
There is much overlap between the symptoms of many disorders and the challenging behaviors and emotions of normal children. Thus, many strategies useful for managing behavioral problems in children (see Treatment) can also be used in children who have mental disorders. Furthermore, appropriate management of childhood behavioral problems may prevent temperamentally vulnerable children from developing a full-blown disorder.
The most common mental disorders of childhood and adolescence fall into 4 broad categories:
However, more often than not, children and adolescents have symptoms and problems that cut across diagnostic boundaries.
Evaluation of mental complaints or symptoms in children and adolescents differs from that in adults in 3 important ways:
In many cases, developmental and behavioral problems (eg, poor academic progress, delays in language acquisition, deficits in social skills) are difficult to distinguish from those due to a mental disorder. In such cases, formal developmental and neuropsychologic testing should be part of the evaluation process.
Because of these factors, evaluation of children with a mental disorder is typically more complex than that of adults. However, most cases are not severe and can be competently managed by an appropriately trained primary care practitioner. However, uncertain or severe cases are best managed in consultation with a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
Last full review/revision April 2009 by Hugh F. Johnston, MD
Content last modified August 2013