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What Are the Most Common Mental Health Problems in Children?

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Children are just as susceptible to mental health disorders as adults. From an inherited predisposition to societal pressures, there are many children out there struggling to get through each day because of poor mental health. There are around 17.1 million kids that have or have had a mental health disorder. It has been revealed that 50% of these illnesses were diagnosed before the child was 14.

If treated, children with mental health problems can grow up to become fully functional members of society, but many children go undiagnosed. Those that are not treated often go on to develop substance abuse problems and are at risk of entering the criminal justice system. This is why it is so important that children with mental health problems are detected early.

The first line of defence is a family nurse practitioner. If you are interested in this important area of nursing, you can study for a master of science in nursing – family nurse practitioner via the Carson-Newman online MSN-FNP post-master’s certificate programme for nurses with an MSN.

Here is a list of the most common mental health disorders in children.  


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the most common mental health problem in kids. Data published by the  CDC says 9.4% of kids aged 2–17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. This data was extracted from the National Survey of Children’s Health. It shows that the percentage of kids diagnosed with ADHD is growing over time and the condition is most common in older kids aged 12–17.

In addition, children diagnosed with ADHD very often have other mental health problems, such as autism and depression.

Behavioural issues

Behavioural issues is an umbrella term covering conditions such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder (CD). Most children act out at some point; it is a normal part of growing up and testing the boundaries – but when a child can’t follow rules, is overly aggressive, lies and steals, and has problems getting on with peers or with authority figures, they are likely to be diagnosed with a behavioural issue. The CDC says 7.4% of children aged 3-17 have some kind of diagnosed behavioural problem.


Around 4.4 million kids, or 7.1% of 3–17-year-olds have been diagnosed with an anxiety condition, but the real figure is likely to be higher. Generalised anxiety occurs when a child feels worried about many things in their life, from going to school to doing anything new. Social anxiety is when a child finds it hard to socialise or be in a busy place, such as a crowded cafeteria at school. Separation anxiety is common in younger children who have issues leaving caregivers or places they are comfortable in.


Depression cases are on the rise, with children and young adults under increasing levels of pressure in all areas of their life. According to the CDC, 3.02% of children aged between three and 17 have been diagnosed with depression, but it is more common in teenagers. In more serious cases, a child may be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, whereby they suffer from severe mood swings that include extreme depression and manic episodes. In addition, depression is commonly diagnosed with anxiety and is also prevalent in kids with autism spectrum disorders and eating disorders.

Autism spectrum disorders

Autism spectrum disorder is less common, but it is more serious. The CDC says one in every 59 kids will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, the majority of them boys. Kids with an autism spectrum disorder are usually diagnosed early in life, most often before age three. Because autism can affect how a child communicates and relates to others, it is vital that they have an early diagnosis, so a treatment plan can be put in place.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders affect around 2.7% of children, most of them teenagers. Eating disorders cover bulimia and anorexia and girls are more likely to be affected. If undiagnosed, eating disorders can have a catastrophic effect on a child’s long-term health; they can also be fatal. Sadly, thanks to societal pressure to be a certain body type and to look good, girls aged 10 and under are no longer immune to eating disorders. The problem with eating disorders is that they are insidious. Also, sufferers tend to be highly secretive and good at hiding their disorder. This makes it hard to detect until the condition is very advanced. Eating disorders are also commonly linked to compulsive behavioural disorders such as OCD.

If you notice any behaviours that you think are related to a mental health problem, an early diagnosis can be key to helping you and your child cope better.

Peter Wallace has been an advocate for mental health awareness for years. He holds a master’s degree in counselling from the University of Edinburgh.

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