Dispelling Myths About Childhood Mental Health

5 min read

November is Early Childhood Mental Health Awareness Month. More than 1 in 10 children have a mental health diagnosis, and 1 in 6 have a developmental delay. Research consistently shows that children with mental health conditions who come from well-resourced, involved families tend to do better, in large part because these kids have access to more support and medical care. An early diagnosis and age-appropriate treatment and support are among the best gifts you can give a struggling child. Yet many children don’t get the help they need. Their parents may not seek a diagnosis, or if they receive a diagnosis, they may delay or avoid treatment.

Early intervention works. The brain is a plastic organ that is constantly changing. The right treatment can support the brain in cultivating more coping skills and developing in the healthiest possible manner. Yet myths about child mental health persist and continue to deny children access to the life-changing care they need.

This November, let’s dispense with these myths once and for all.

A diagnosis is stigmatizing.

Imagine spending years of your life unable to do something that comes easily to others. You keep trying and keep failing—and the people around you keep getting mad at you. Then, finally, someone tells you that your brain works differently, and that makes it harder for you to do this apparently simple thing. But there’s a solution—a medication or an alternative way of doing this challenging thing.

Would you feel stigmatized? Or would you feel happy?

This is the experience of children diagnosed with mental health conditions. They already know they’re struggling. And they’re often dealing with constant disappointment and anger from adults who think their struggles are self-chosen.

A diagnosis can be empowering. It helps a child learn how to better understand their brain and their behavior. And, often, it offers a path out of chronic frustration for both parent and child. Moreover, a diagnosis can mean your child gets access to resources at home and school and may reduce bullying, negative input from teachers, and other common challenges.

Medication is harmful.

No medication is perfect or without risk. This is why prescription medications require a provider’s oversight. But research consistently shows that medication for children with mental health conditions is not overprescribed but under-prescribed. For example, medication remains the single most effective treatment for childhood ADHD, but many children never get access to it.

This means these kids spend years functioning at less than optimal capacity—feeling frustrated, demoralized, and sometimes hopeless. No wonder there’s such a strong correlation between untreated mental illness and other negative outcomes, like dropping out of high school or going to jail.

Medication, for kids who need it, can be life-saving and life-changing. Denying a child medication is denying them the best possible shot at a good life. Good parents want to give their children every possible advantage. Treatment for a treatable medical condition is key to your child’s well-being.

Kids just need more discipline.

Research generally shows that punishment does not work to change behavior and that harsh disciplinary tactics actually increase harmful behaviors, such as aggression and violence. So even among neurotypical kids, more discipline is not typically the answer—though more consistency, stronger boundaries, more warmth, and better communication can certainly improve things.

When kids have a mental health condition, discipline is definitely not the solution. This is like trying to discipline a child out of diabetes or epilepsy. All you’re doing is punishing a child for something they can’t control, thereby likely making the problem much worse.

Kids who are struggling need evaluation and support, not more punishment.

Kids just need more time to grow out of it.

Kids do sometimes show significant improvements as they get older. But this is usually because they get treatment and gain better skills to manage their condition. Without treatment, symptoms often get worse.

And parents may witness new symptoms, too. The child who can’t pay attention may become aggressive or depressed in frustration. The anxious child may begin refusing to go to school or even refusing to leave the house.

Time is not on your side here. Treatment is the key to a better life for struggling kids.

Bad parenting is the real problem.

No one is a perfect parent. There are always things we can do to improve life for our kids. For example, when depressed kids are allowed to avoid everything, sleep all day, and not participate in daily life, they tend to become more depressed. Anxious kids may develop more fears as they become more avoidant, and aggressive kids tend to become more aggressive in response to parental aggression.

Parenting support can ensure kids have the best possible environment, set parents up for success, and reduce ongoing conflict. But “bad” parenting does not cause mental illness. Often, parents of neurodivergent kids are incredibly dedicated and caring and have devoted themselves to learning about their child’s condition and advocating for the child at every turn.

They need support, not judgment and condemnation. Because parents who feel stressed, judged, and shamed cannot show up for their kids in the way those children need.

Raising a child with neurological differences can be challenging. It requires incredible emotional intelligence and an ongoing willingness to be an exceptional advocate for the child. The last thing these parents need is judgment. Until we recognize mental health as health—and as in need of healthcare as any other health issue—these kids will continue to struggle.

This November, reach out to the struggling kids in your life. Show compassion to them and their parents, and know that with the right support, things can get better.

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