Focus on the Family

Mental Disorders in Kids

What should I expect from a child with a mental disorder? How can I know which behaviors he's capable of controlling and which behaviors I should simply accept and make allowances for? We're facing this situation with our teenage son, and we have no idea how to handle it. Can you help?

Mental illness is a complicated, multi-layered phenomenon, and it can often be extremely confusing for parents facing situations like the one you’ve described. We want to commend you on your obvious concern for your son and assure you that your friends at Focus on the Family are here to assist you in any way we can. Following are a few thoughts we hope you’ll find beneficial.

The first thing we’d suggest is to arm yourself with more specific information. “Mental disorder” is a pretty broad term, and it’s often applied to a number of different emotional and psychological conditions. You can’t expect to help your son unless you know exactly what you’re up against. This isn’t something you can find out on your own or manage by means of guesswork.

This thought leads us to a more basic question: precisely how do you know that your child is suffering from a “mental disorder”? Is your statement based on a formal diagnosis given by a qualified physician, psychiatrist, or counselor? If so, the best person to provide you with the insight you’re looking for is the professional who evaluated your child in the first place. We’d urge you to go back to that individual and ask him or her for some more details. Pin down the name of your child’s “disorder.” Educate yourself about its causes, its symptoms, and the available treatments. Ask your doctor what you can expect from a child who is dealing with this particular disorder.

If you don’t have a formal diagnosis, we’d encourage you to get one. You can start by consulting with your family physician. If the condition isn’t something he’s equipped to handle, he can probably direct you to a counselor or psychiatrist who possesses the necessary training and experience to deal with the situation. As we’ve already indicated, the important thing is to nail down the specifics of the case. That’s why it would be a good idea to make a list of your concerns and your observations before seeing a professional. Take a copy of that list with you to your appointment with the doctor or counselor. Keep another copy for yourself. This is the best way to get the information you need. It’s worth noting that should you engage the services of a therapist for your child, there are certain legal limits to what they are able to disclose to you directly as parents as regards information that is gathered during a private session. It’s helpful, for this reason, to incorporate at least a few family sessions as part of the treatment plan.

It may also be helpful to keep in mind (as we have also noted above) that “mental illnesses” come in a number of different varieties. There are mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar syndrome, which affect the person’s feelings and outlook on life. There are also behavioral disorders, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) or Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), which sometimes find expression in seriously anti-social, sociopathic, or even criminal actions. There are also what are known as thought disorders, which include schizophrenia. Clearly, a parent’s expectations and levels of tolerance are going to vary depending on the kind of disorder under consideration. For example, you can’t expect a depressed child to alter his mental state without treatment or assistance. But you can and should demand that a pathological thief stop his stealing. And your expectations for a child with schizophrenia may be completely different. As we’ve said, everything depends on the precise nature of your son’s problem.

Age, too, is an important factor, since there can be vast differences between a thirteen-year-old and a seventeen-year-old. Most of the disorders we’ve been discussing aren’t regarded as “fixed” or “permanent” until an individual is at least eighteen years old.

For more information, feel free to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness

When Someone You Love Suffers From Depression or Mental Illness

A Relentless Hope: Surviving the Storm of Teen Depression

Life In Spite of Me: Extraordinary Hope After a Fatal Choice

National Institute of Mental Health

National Alliance on Mental Illness

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

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