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Mental Illness in Children and Adults

Mental Illness in Children and Adults

Even beyond childhood traits (such as impulsivity, emotional reactivity, hyperactivity, etc), kids’ brains and bodies seem to experience and certainly to express mental discomfort differently than adults. For example, when adults are tired they tend to be lethargic and sleepy. Tired children often become agitated and irritable.

Children with mental illness behave differently than adults with mental illness. When adults are depressed, they tend to be characterized by sadness, slowing down, and gloominess. Depressed children tend to be grumpy—not sad—and they may have extra energy and agitation. While adults with ADHD are usually just restless, most children with ADHD cannot sit still for more than a few moments. Adults with PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) usually use words to relive trauma, while younger children with PTSD show their trauma in play and behavior. Adults with Bipolar Disorder tend to have discrete “cycles” of moods that last for long periods of times. But children with Bipolar Disorder tend to have many mood changes each day.

Helping children with mental illness hinges on the understanding that most children do not have the vocabulary or concepts to accurately describe their internal experiences. They almost never know “why” they behave as they do. They are often unaware of how events link together—for example, how an argument with mom in the morning led to poor test performance in their first period class. Children tend to be more resilient than others would suppose, and each child has strengths and resources available to them on their road to a happier, more fulfilling life.

For more information about childhood and adolescent mental illness, visit the website for National Institute of Mental Health.