Some kids just really need to go to therapy

Therapy does not have to begin at adulthood.
Therapy does not have to begin at adulthood.
Image: Reuters/ Jianan Yu
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Earlier this week, the Duchess of Cambridge wrote a blog about the importance of mental health treatment for children. “Like most parents today, William and I would not hesitate to seek help for our children if they needed it,” the wife of the prince wrote for The Huffington Post. “We know there is no shame in a young child struggling with their emotions or suffering from a mental illness.”

Indeed, mental health does not begin at adulthood. Nearly every mental-health disorder (excluding schizophrenia, which usually manifests in the mid teens to late twenties) can affect young children and adolescents. “Anxiety and depression were once thought to be adult disorders,” Philip Kendall, psychology professor at Temple University tells Quartz. “That’s a very old-fashioned notion and one that is remarkably inaccurate given the data.”

Although most symptoms become noticeable when children begin school or enter social settings, Robert Franks, head of Harvard Medical School’s Judge Baker Children’s Center, tells Quartz that even babies and toddlers can become “emotionally deregulated and have difficulty being soothed.” At these early stages, treatment often focuses on supporting the mother and developing parental relationships.

Not only is it important to treat mental health conditions as they develop, but research suggests that intervening at a young age can be considerably more effective than waiting until later in life.

Kendall compares developing mental-health skills to learning a sport or musical instrument—it’s far easier to become practiced if you begin at a young age, when the brain has high neuroplasticity. Plus, starting treatment young means patients don’t have to unlearn bad habits. “If I’m working with someone who’s 40 years old, I have their life experience to counter. If I’m working with someone 10 or 11 years old, we’re talking about their experience as they emerge on a week-to-week basis, you don’t have a history to counter-act,” he adds.

Though children can suffer from the same mental-health conditions as adults, the symptoms may be different at different stages in their lives. For example, the avoidance that comes with anxiety disorders might begin as avoiding certain foods or refusing to leave a parent’s side, and later develop into avoiding social interactions.

But early symptoms of anxiety aren’t necessarily a sign that a child needs treatment. “The normal attachment to a parent dissipates over time, the normal fear of monsters in the closet goes away,” says Kendall. Instead, he advises keeping a note of the symptoms, especially when they become inappropriate or troublesome (if a 13-year-old wants to sleep in her parents’ bed, for example, or won’t get out of bed for a week.) If these symptoms persist, it’s time for a parent to seek help.

After all, Kendall notes, the phrase “The child is father to the man” contains more than a grain of truth. Our experience in adulthood reflects what we learn as children, and so seeking mental health treatment at an early age is money well spent.