Mclean Hospital

About Child and Teen Mental Health

Learn More About Conditions That Affect Youths

While the brain is still developing, mental health care can be a challenge. The therapies and treatments that work for adults might not fully address the same issues in a child. The treatment concepts might be confusing to a young mind. Child and adolescent care focuses on using methods that help kids and teens to develop skills to manage their illnesses in a way that they can understand and can build upon as they get older.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 teens and young adults live with a mental health condition—half develop the condition by age 14 and three quarters by age 24. The Child Mind Institute’s 2017 Children’s Mental Health Report notes that half of teens diagnosed with major mood disorders don’t adhere to treatment, but studies show 81% of teens with anxiety, 71% of teens with depression, and 85% of teens with ADHD get better with treatment.

Family involvement is a key component to child and adolescent care. Parents and guardians are often taught the same skills their kids are learning so that they can help the child to practice the skills outside of treatment and use the skills to manage challenging thoughts and behaviors. Parent education is also important, so that parents fully understand the mental health conditions and the steps clinicians are suggesting to best help their child.

Teens in group therapy
While the brain is still developing, mental health care can be a challenge

Youths may be diagnosed with most any mental health condition, but these are a few of the most common mental illnesses affecting children and adolescents.


Anxiety is chronic, excessive worry and fear that seems to have no real cause. Children or adolescents with anxiety disorders often worry a lot about a variety of things. These include future events, past behaviors, social acceptance, family matters, their personal abilities, and/or school performance.

Obsessive compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder in which people have obsessive thoughts that are unwanted and related to fears (such as a fear of touching dirty objects) and use compulsive rituals to control the fears (such as excessive hand-washing). When OCD is present, obsessive thoughts and compulsive rituals can become so frequent or intense that they interfere with activities of daily living and normal developmental activities.

Substance Misuse

Addiction is a recognized medical brain disorder. It refers to the misuse of illegal or legal substances including alcohol, opioids, and other drugs. Teens are especially at risk for substance misuse since the part of the brain that controls risk taking is not fully developed and impaired thinking can lead to high-risk behaviors.


Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are behavior disorders, usually first diagnosed in childhood, that are characterized by inattention, impulsivity, and, in some cases, hyperactivity. The symptoms of hyperactivity, when present, are almost always apparent by the age of 7 and may be present in very young preschoolers. Inattention or attention-deficit may not be evident until a child faces the expectations of elementary school.


Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological and developmental disorder that usually appears during the first three years of life. A child with autism appears to live in his or her own world, showing little interest in others, and a lack of social awareness. The focus of an autistic child is a consistent routine and includes an interest in repeating particular behaviors.

Autistic children often have problems in communication, avoid eye contact, and show limited attachment to others. Autism can prevent a child from forming relationships with others, in part, because of an inability to interpret facial expressions or emotions. A child with autism may resist cuddling, play alone, be resistant to change, and have delayed speech development. People with autism tend to exhibit repeated body movements, such as flapping hands or rocking, and have unusual attachments to objects. However, many people with autism excel consistently on certain mental tasks, such as counting, measuring, art, music, or memory.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, previously referred to as manic depression, goes beyond ordinary highs and lows of mood changes, and is a serious medical condition. The disorder is characterized by periodic episodes of extreme elation, happiness, elevated mood, or irritability (also called mania) countered by periodic, classic major depressive symptoms. The median age of onset is 25. When symptoms are present before the age of 12, they are often confused with ADD/ADHD.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders often begin in youth. Anorexia, a form of self-starvation, is characterized by a distorted body image that leads to restricted eating and other behaviors that prevent a person from gaining weight. Bulimia is defined as uncontrolled episodes of overeating (bingeing) usually followed by purging (often self-induced vomiting).

Adolescents who develop eating disorders are more likely to come from families with a history of eating disorders or weight problems, physical illness, and other mental health problems. Teens may also be dependent, immature in their emotional development, and are likely to isolate themselves from others. Other mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and addiction are commonly found in teens with eating disorders.


Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), or self-harm, by definition is the deliberate, intentional damage to one’s body tissue without the intention of dying. There is no intention of suicide, however, there can be a high correlation with suicide if self-injurious behavior goes untreated.

In the U.S., approximately 14-18% of high school students and between 12-35% of college students engage in some form of self-injurious behavior at least once. The age of onset often occurs in early adolescence, between the ages of 11 and 14.

While self-harm is of serious concern for parents, families, and teachers, it’s important to know that when the right approach and treatment is provided in a timely manner, this behavior is highly treatable. But kids who self-harm need treatment right away. Giving in to pleas for more time and delaying treatment can lead to further, more serious injury. While we often hear about the number of teens who engage in this behavior, the majority who are treated appropriately can go on to lead happy, healthy lives.

Suicidal Behavior

Suicidal behavior is defined as a preoccupation or act that is focused on causing one’s own death voluntarily.

Suicidal ideation refers to thoughts of suicide or wanting to take one’s own life. Suicidal behavior refers to actions taken by one who is considering or preparing to cause his or her own death. Suicide attempt usually refers to an act focused on causing one’s own death that is unsuccessful in causing death. Suicide refers to having intentionally caused one’s own death.

Talking about suicide is the best way to prevent it. Although it is not possible to predict suicide with any certainty, our best tool is recognition of the signs that many people exhibit when contemplating suicide.

These three behaviors should prompt you to seek immediate help for you or a loved one: talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself; looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or obtaining a gun; talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.

Visit our Suicide Prevention page for actions to take if you or someone you know needs help.

Learn More About Child and Adolescent Mental Health

You may find these resources valuable to understand more about mental health in kids and teens:

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