Just like teens and adults, young children can face mental health challenges, including anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), stress, depression, Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and more.
Unlike their elders, toddlers don't necessarily have words to express their emotions. What seems to be normal early childhood behavior may actually be a red flag that something more is going on.
If you suspect your child has mental health challenges, don't panic. Keep in mind that like physical ailments, psychological issues are treatable and should not be stigmatized.
In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 1 out of every 5 children suffers from a mental disorder in a given year. The impact is felt not just on the child, but also on his or her family, friends and community.
Most toddlers have perfectly fine mental health. For those who may be grappling with psychological issues, there may be noticeable differences in how often they have a hard time handling a given situation, and the extent to which that struggle affects them. In general, the problems are either emotional or behavioral.
Here are 6 warning signs that your young child may have mental health issues, worth exploring with your pediatrician:
Your toddler doesn't want to be held
In general, young children are comforted by being hugged or cuddled. Physical touch gives them a feeling of safety, security, and warmth. The bond from being held close reinforces attachment, which helps soothe and comfort most toddlers. Some young children have the opposite reaction, however, and reject physical touch. If your toddler resists physical contact, or even cries or struggles when you are trying to hold him or her, it may indicate developmental issues or a disorder like autism.
Your toddler is an extremely selective eater
While being a picky eater is practically a rite of toddler passage, for some young children, it may be a sign of mental health issues including ADHD, depression or anxiety. If certain food obsessions or aversions are so extreme that it interferes with your daily life, it may be an indication of a larger issue.
Your toddler has major sleep issues
Studies have shown that toddlers with excessive sleep issues, especially when it comes to going to bed, falling asleep and/or staying asleep, may also have psychological difficulties. If it's to the point of a sleep disorder, it's likely other signs – like the inability to stay focused, hyperactivity and other behavioral issues – present, along with mood, anxiety and other disorders.
Your toddler won't make eye contact – even with you
From infancy, eye contact is an important component of parent-child bonding. If your child rarely or never looks you or any other close family member or caregiver in the eye and even actively avoids it, it could be a sign of autism or in rare cases, other mental illnesses including schizophrenia, anxiety or depression.
Your toddler doesn't seem to interact with others
Playing alone or parallel play is a very common toddler phenomenon, but as with the other warning signs, if this is taken to an extreme level – especially if your toddler avoids interacting with you or other close friends, family or caregivers – it could be an indication of mental health issues.
Your toddler loses a skill they once could do
If your child was potty trained and suddenly begins peeing in his or her bed every night, for example, the regressive behavior may stem from a psychological issue, like stress or anxiety.
While mental health issues are uncommon in toddlers, if your child is exhibiting an extreme behavior or behaviors that persist over time – and aren't easily explained by “ages and phases” – you should talk to your doctor about the possibility of a psychological challenge. Not only will this give you peace of mind, but also if there is something going on with your toddler, early intervention and treatment can make all the difference.