Mental health and mental illness exist on a continuum. Mental health reflects how we think, feel, and act as we face life’s situations. It is how we look at ourselves, our lives and the people in our lives. It is how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.
When children are emotionally healthy, they feel good about themselves, enjoy having friends, and face life’s challenges with enthusiasm, creativity and optimism. However, this is rarely an easy task for children or families.
As children develop, they must learn to get along with peers and adults in a variety of contexts, understand social situations, manage feelings, control impulses, focus for extended periods of time on school work, deal with cultural and societal pressures, and take increasing responsibility for themselves, all while developing a solid sense of self-esteem. Unexpected bumps in the road of life, ongoing stress, or traumatic experiences can interfere with these developmental tasks, and children may develop emotional or behavioral responses that do not serve them well.
Because children are still developing, their range of responses can be far greater than that for adults, which can cause concern for caregivers. If left unaddressed, these responses can take on a life of their own, and develop into mental health problems, even after the stressors go away. And even under the best of circumstances, children may experience mental health challenges, which can happen at varying levels of intensity and duration.
The good news is that children’s mental health issues are very treatable. Sometimes this means giving children a safe place to talk, play, and interact; sometimes it means helping children develop specific skills; sometimes it means taking medication, or helping families address stressors. Invariably, effective children’s mental health treatment actively involves families, and is actively driven by their understanding of their child and his or her needs.