Treating Children’s Mental Heath Issues Early Could Help Prevent Later Problems

child therapist play therapy clarity counseling center north carolina

Becky O'dell, Clarity's resident child therapist and play therapist specialist, was featured in a Star News article about children's mental heath issues and the power of early intervention. Star News is a wonderful source to be in the know about whats happening in the Wilmington NC area.

Mental health professionals are understanding more about the importance of addressing and treating a child’s mental health.

By Allison Ballard StarNews Correspondent

Mental health professionals are understanding more about the importance of addressing and treating a child’s mental health. As many as half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by about age 14 and signs may appear earlier, according to The National Institute of Mental Health, but treating children and helping their families manage mental health difficulties can prevent the development of disorders later.

For many parents, though, it can be a challenging prospect to consider, and a tough one to recognize. Different developmental stages for children mean there are a wide variety of signs to consider, said Dr. Eric Hartman, a licensed psychologist based in Wilmington who works primarily with school-aged children, adolescents, young adults and their families. “What’s important is if their behavior is having a negative impact,” he said. That could mean academic performance or how they behave around family and friends. “Notice if there is a shift in how they are relating to others.”


Unfortunately, children often don’t have the skills to let those around them know that they’re having a problem. “Kids can either internalize or act out,” said Becky O’Dell, a licensed professional counselor with Clarity Counseling Center in Wilmington. One of her specialties is play therapy for children up to 12 years old. “Acting out may include more temper tantrums or other behaviors that are uncharacteristic,” she said. If they’re internalizing, it might be observed as a sadness or lack of energy.

If a parent does notice something that worries them, it might not be a serious issue – perhaps it’s just a problem that can be treated to help the child cope with a stressor. According to the NIMH, though, parents should make a particular note if problems happen across a variety of settings, if a child withdraws socially or has repeated thoughts of death, if there are changes in appetite or sleep, or if there’s a return to the behaviors of younger kids.

Common mental health issues

Here's more information about a few of the common mental health issues for children.


Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is marked by inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development, according to the NIMH. It often gets recognized in a school setting because there's a significant change to a child's schedule, O'Dell said. One thing parents can do here is talk with teachers about what's happening in the classroom. Maybe some adjustments can be made that will help," she said.

Also, the disorder isn't always what you expect. "One thing I hear from parents is that they say their kids couldn't have attention problems, if they can play video games for three hours," Hartman said. Some of these cases also come with a hyper-focus, as well.


Both Hartman and O'Dell said they've seen the role that anxiety can have in a child's life. "Kids have a lot going on these days," O'Dell said. "Schooldays are long and homework can be stressful." The uptick in anxiety often coincides with testing that's done in many schools. "A lot of emphasis is put on end-of-grade tests," Hartman said. Children can internalize that stress.


O'Dell said she works with a lot of patients dealing with difficult situations. "Often the result is a kind of depression from dealing with death or loss of some sort," she said. This can be divorce, an illness or loss of a family member, or even children whose parents are struggling with substance abuse. "It's grief or trauma."

"One thing I'd like people to know is that depression can manifest differently in children," Hartman said. "It's not always the stereotypical sadness." It can also be observed as aggravation, irritation or other behaviors.

Both Hartman and O’Dell said there’s one thing that parents can do to understand more about a child’s mental state: listen. “I feel that’s really the biggest thing to understand here,” Hartman said. And, as simple as it sounds, many parents find it difficult. “As adults, we can be in too much of a rush to really listen,” O’Dell said. It’s important that they take the time to stop and be with a child. “Be empathetic. Ask ‘can you help me understand what you’re feeling?’”

Even then, though, kids might not be able to adequately explain. “Children don’t always have the words that adults have,” she said. “But artwork can help. Get them to draw a picture of what they’re feeling. Play is a language for kids.” Otherwise, parents can engage in other quiet, introspective activities with their children. Take them for a walk in the park, or encourage them to do yoga for children, for example.

Listening and checking in can help parents know when and if it’s time to seek other help. “Be aware of what changes are happening, and talk to a pediatrician if you have any concerns,” O’Dell said. A doctor can rule out medical possibilities and refer parents to mental health professional, as well. Many of Hartman’s patients are referred to him this way. “Don’t be afraid of seeking help,” he said. “People are worried about the stigma, but if your child had a virus, you’d get help. It’s similar for this.”

Click here to read the full story at Star News.