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How To Tell if a Teen Has a Mental Disability

Updated on February 19, 2014
krsharp05 profile image

Kristi graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in Human Development and Developmental Psychopathology of Children.

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Girl Suffering from Anxiety
Girl Suffering from Anxiety | Source

Mental Disability

Mental Disability and disorders can be recognized very early or may materialize much later in life. The following is a list of mental disorders and some characteristics. It is not meant for diagnosis. If you are concerned about your child, you should seek medical help immediately.

Parents Intuition

Studies indicate that nearly fifty percent of children whose parents have concerns about their mental health actually have a diagnosable mental health issue. If the child's teacher or teachers have similar worries, the likelihood of a mental illness increases.

Doctors from the Institute of Psychiatry investigated how accurately parents are able to identify their child's mental health problems. After surveying more than 10,000 cases, they found that it was highly unlikely for parents not to recognize signs of mental problems and in only 5% of all of the cases tested, parents expressed no distress when a diagnosable condition was actually present.

Heroin addiction
Heroin addiction | Source

Types of Mental Disorders.

Alcohol and Drug Abuse

It is not uncommon for teenagers to experiment although, trying drugs and alcohol is often considered the gateway to using drugs and alcohol. The only way to ensure that addiction does not become an issue, especially for children who are at a higher risk, is to never use drugs or alcohol.


There are different types of anxiety disorders, all of which can be debilitating.

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Phobias

are all part of what doctors consider "fearful anticipation" and dysphoria. Anxiety may trigger physical symptoms that can be in the form of nightmares, headaches, stomach aches, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, sleeplessness, fear, terror, shortness of breath, chest pain, choking, fear of losing control and more. Anxiety can be controlled through relaxation exercises and in severe cases, the use of medications can help.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is typically recognized and addressed in the adolescent years. In some cases it will persist into teen and adulthood. It is characterized by an inability to pay attention, impulsivity and behavior that seems sporadic and disorganized. Children are often unable to participate in cooperative play and may be described as being restless and unable to sit still. ADHD is more common in boys than girls and is almost always remedied with medication.

Bipolar Disorder (Manic Depressive)

Bipolar disorder, which is also known as manic depression, is the presence of both extreme happiness or feelings of overwhelming greatness and high self-esteem and the feelings of sadness, depression, physical illness and even suicidal thoughts. The extreme sensations may cycle very frequently and can be accompanied by hallucinations. Bipolar disorder has been misdiagnosed.

If a child has parents who are bipolar, they are at a greater risk of being affected by bipolar disorder however, it can be controlled effectively with medication and therapy. Although bipolar disorder isn't typically recognized until adulthood, the ability to diagnose it in children is more reliable but it does require expert observation over a period of time and a thorough evaluation by a qualified psychiatrist.

Conduct Disorder and Violence

Conduct disorder describes a group of individuals whose behavioral and emotional problems are socially unacceptable. These kiddos are often juvenile delinquents who may have been abused physically or sexually, they may have suffered neglect or experienced a traumatic event. When all of the factors come together, these kids have great difficulty following rules.

It is not uncommon for a child with this disorder to be a bully, to make threats to other children, to be involved in physical fights on a regular basis or to have weapons on multiple occasions. These children may cause harm to animals or may force someone into sexual activity. They may physically assault another child, deliberately set fires or destroy property on a regular basis. There might be a consistent pattern of lying, stealing, truancy and running away from home. It is common for children with conduct disorder to exhibit intense anger and frequent emotional outbursts. They will most likely have low tolerance of frustration, and very little ability to delay gratification. These kiddos may also display symptoms of ADHD (see above) and depression (see below).

The best treatment for conduct disorder is early and comprehensive treatment. Psychiatrists will develop a comprehensive treatment plan and parents should include select people from the child's school to create a treatment team. Because of it's antisocial nature, children who do not get treatment often do not adapt well to society and into adulthood. Studies show that within the walls of our prison systems, a high percentage of inmates convicted of violent offenses also suffer from conduct disorder. That's not to say that a child diagnosed with conduct disorder is also diagnosed with a prison term.


When a child experiences depression their ability to function normally is altered. They display an inability to concentrate, a change in eating habits, sadness, crying, isolation, abnormal thoughts of rejection, difficulty with relationships, anger, illness, disinterest in previously engaging activities and dangerous or suicidal thoughts.

Children who suffer from depression may have trouble at home and at school. They may not always seem sad and may recognize their own hopelessness. It is not uncommon for depressed children to defer to drugs and alcohol as numbing agents. Children who are depressed are more likely to be suicidal if they are using drugs and alcohol.

It's important to note that all children feel sad at times but depression is marked by perpetual sadness that may be accompanied by disturbing behaviors such as self injury, strange or bizarre drawing or writing, destruction, provocative activity, dangerous activity or unprotected sex.

Example of Dyslexia
Example of Dyslexia | Source

Learning Disability (LD)

Learning disabilities are believed to be caused by a problems with the nervous system that affects the receiving, processing and communication of information. When a child is actively participating in school but is still falling behind or may not be mastering the tasks at a normal pace, it could be because of a learning disability. Some indications of learning disabilities include difficulties remembering sequences and instructions, inability to learn to read and spell, difficulty with mathematics, dyslexia (reversal of letters, words and numbers), inability or difficulty to understand time frame and concept and poor coordination.

There are consequences of learning disabilities. Children can easily thrive if the learning disability is detected early and treated properly. If left untreated, it may have a devastating effect because the inability to learn is extremely frustrating for most children. Emotional problems can stem from undetected learning disabilities and failures. It's important to have a proper evaluation to determine if a learning disability exists.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder | Source

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is characterized by compulsive and repeated thoughts that cause unwanted and marked anxiety. Additionally, there might be ceremonial types of behavior that interfere with daily functioning, relationships and routines. Compulsions are typically unrealistic and irrational and will cause significant emotional discomfort to the child. OCD has been shown to be genetically linked but because a parent has it does not secure a diagnosis for a child.

Most children can be treated for OCD with medication and therapy. It's imperative to have family and educational support.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD occurs when a child experiences a traumatic or life threatening event, a severe injury or they may have been victimized or witnessed someone being victimized. They might have been in an accident, experienced a natural disaster, been diagnosed with a severe illness or experienced death in some manner.

Children who suffer from PTSD might have experiences that will cause them to re-live the event. They might suffer from nightmares and distress when reminded about the event and often act out the event repeatedly during play. It's common for children with PTSD to fear death and to display abrupt emotional reactivity. They may by overly clingy or whiny and may fabricate illnesses such as nausea or headaches. Insomnia and waking up continuously are also very common for children with PTSD.

The successful treatment of PTSD is based largely on early detection. It is very important to convey to the child that they are safe on a regular basis. It takes a team of individuals working together which includes the child's peers and while medication is generally not necessary, in extreme cases of anxiety and depression, it can be used beneficially.

Schizophrenic Writing Embroidered on Cloth
Schizophrenic Writing Embroidered on Cloth | Source


Schizophrenia in children, though rare, is a more serious condition due to its affective and causative nature. It's more difficult to diagnose in a child and it's origins are unknown. It can be controlled but there is no cure. Schizophrenia requires a complete psychiatric examination by an adolescent psychiatrist specifically trained in evaluating, diagnosing and treating children with schizophrenia.

Children with schizophrenia may have difficulty relating to peers and are very withdrawn. They have a lack of concern for their own hygiene and display severe mood swings. Their thinking tends to be confused and they have trouble distinguishing between what is real and what is fantasy. Children with schizophrenia often hear voices and see things which are not real and suffer from paranoia. Children with schizophrenia require medication and a comprehensive treatment plan which is carefully monitored by a psychiatrist.

Psychosis vs Psychopath discussion - Colorado Theater 9

When a child or teen suffers from psychosis (such as schozophrenia) they are in a neurological state of existence that is often accompanied by hallucinations and delusions. They believe what's going on is real and may "lose touch" with reality but is not particularly prone to violence.

A psychopath is someone who is someone who does not feel empathy or guilt. They are anti-social and criminal in nature.

The tragedy in Colorado has triggered much debate over the status of the man who carried out the shooting. He is a psychopath. Don't be fooled by the costume. It's the behavior that defines who and what he is.

  1. He planned the event with explicit detail.
  2. There was an enormous amount of explosives and toxic chemicals - tear gas, traps, etc
  3. He watched the victims for how long? before attacking.
  4. Multiple weapons.
  5. Multiple victims.
  6. Multiple sites where he meant to do harm.

Autism Awareness Ribbon
Autism Awareness Ribbon | Source

Autism & Aspergers

Children with Autism have varying degrees of diagnosis. They might have a more severe case or a very mild case. Children with severe autism may be non-speakers. They may be withdrawn and unresponsive and often unwilling to make eye contact. They may also commit behaviors such as hand flapping and they have an obsession for keeping things orderly.

Some children have a less severe form of autism known as Aspergers. They function at an extremely high level and have normal language development which at times is a bit quirky. While they also have an obsession for order, one main difference between a child with autism and a child with Aspergers or an "Aspie" is that an Aspie becomes preoccupied with something and will spend hours and hours focused on that topic. Children with Aspergers are also at risk for developing other psychiatric issues such as depression, ADHD, schizophrenia and OCD.

It is not uncommon for an autistic child or a child with Aspergers to possess an extraordinary talent. Autism of all types is often marked by an inability to understand things that are implied. Children with autism and aspergers take things as literal and function better with specifics and details.

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

RAD is known to cause acute problems for children because of its disruptive nature to the child's life and normalcy. RAD develops in children who have been neglected or abused or who have experienced institutional abuse. RAD is characterized by a child who fails to thrive or gain weight. They might be uninterested in eating and can be unresponsive to human contact and human interaction. They may also display an inappropriate closeness to strangers. RAD is a serious problem for children which typically manifests by the age of five but can be apparent as early as 12 months old.

Reactive attachment disorder is a rare but serious clinical condition that requires a complex psychiatric evaluation.

Tic Disorders & Tourette's Syndrome

Children with tic disorders may have vocal or body tics or they may have both. A tic is defined as a quick or sudden and repeated involuntary movement of the body or involuntary pattern of speech. Tic's can happen in any part of the body. Tic's can often be controlled and be very slight however, under duress or times of extreme anxiety or exhaustion they can become continuous and more pronounced.

Tourette's syndrome is marked by the display several physical tics, one of which is a verbal tic. Children cannot control their movement or sounds. They can be successfully treated with habit reversal training and in come cases, medication. Children with tic disorders are more likely to develop ADHD, LD, impulsivity and OCD.

Emo Youth
Emo Youth | Source

What Do I Do Now?

Because parents are typically the first to notice that there might be a problem, the decision to seek professional help can be difficult. Consulting a pediatrician is your first step. Be honest, be open and tell them everything you know. They cannot help you with information they don't have. You may also want to consult your church as well as other adults who know the child as well as you do. Taking steps to resolve the problem is the key to resolution and successful treatment.


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    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      3 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      grand old lady, thank you for reading and for commenting. Recognizing the problem early is always easier on everyone. Thanks again, -K

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

      3 years ago from Philippines

      This is a wonderful article. I never realized until now how important it is for a parent to look for signs in their children while they are still young, so they can get needed treatment in advance, with possible cure or greater control of the illness. Thank you very much for this information.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      8 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      Emma, thank you for reading. I appreciate you taking the time to comment. Hopefully your son and nephew are thriving. It sounds like you are well versed on a child's well being. Great to have your input. -K

    • Emma Harvey profile image

      Emma Kisby 

      8 years ago from Berkshire, UK

      What fantastic information here.

      Being a parent of a child with a mental health problem must be worrying, and for the child/teen a very scary time.

      My son has mild autism and my nephew has autism and ADHD. Although my son seems to be coping alright at the moment, my nephew has a tough time at school and he gets very depressed and anxious.

      Thanks for this info.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      8 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      Robert, Great to hear from you! Thank you for reading and commenting. You're right, getting help is critical. It's difficult to watch kiddos struggle. I'm glad you found this information useful. -K

    • Robert Erich profile image

      Robert Erich 

      8 years ago from California

      Such a detailed and well written hub! I am impressed. There are many kids that I have seen struggling with these issues. It is so important to do what you can to help out or get them help. Great read, quality info, thanks for sharing!

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      8 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      Simone, you are absolutely right. The good thing is, parents are usually very good at detecting that there is a problem. The difficult part is seeking help. Labels can be debilitating. It's great to hear from you again! Thank you for your input! -K

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      What a great guide and overview. I've been realizing more than ever just how many disorders can manifest themselves LATER in life (either via triggers or natural processes). It's very important that parents realize these things can crop up well after a child has become a teenager.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      8 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      Chemistry book, NGO - That's a terrific idea. Anxiety disorder can be extremely confusing for the affected. It's wonderful that your sister has you to act on her behalf (in loco parentis). Not all sisters would take on that responsibility. Thank you for reading and for your kind comment. Best wishes to you and your sister. -K

    • Chemistry Book profile image

      Chemistry Book 

      8 years ago

      Thank you krsharp05! Anxiety Disorder is usually misconceived in places were people believe in witchcraft. Some cultures would isolate and torture the patient to death, claiming the patient is "confessing Witcraft". This usually culminate in the death of the individual or the development of permanent mental disability.

      The problem is complicated by some form of native doctors and pastors who usually use starvation and torture as forms of treatment.

      I intend to initiate an NGO on this subject when I get to Africa. This is very important because my younger sister actually developed Anxiety Disorder, and I have pondered her fate if she were to be in Africa.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      8 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      Om, you are absolutely correct. In some cases it can go undetected for years. It's very common for people to recognize their conditions and reversely to deny them all together. It's a mad mad world. Great to hear from you, thank you for reading. -K

    • Om Paramapoonya profile image

      Om Paramapoonya 

      8 years ago

      Very nicely written and informative. Great job, krshrap! I used to see students with mental disabilities on a regular basis back when I was a receptionist at a university counseling center, and surprisingly a lot of them appeared very normal and could communicate very well. I guess some types of mental disorders in teenagers can be pretty hard to detect unless you spend a lot of time or have a long conversation with them.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      8 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      Thanks to you both spartucus and leah. I feel a special need to champion those kiddos who have greater odds to overcome. There's nothing better than seeing the little guy come from behind and win! Thank you for reading and commenting. This was a really long one! -K

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 

      8 years ago from Western New York

      This is an excellent hub! My little guy has a disability which predisposes him to learning difficulties - and learning difficulties can lead to other problems like anxiety or depression. It is good for parents to be on the lookout for warning signs!

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 

      8 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Very informative hub! I was born with a learning disability which affected my fine motor skills. But I was fortunate that it was identified early and I could get the assistance that I needed. Sadly many children today seem to fall through the cracks. I appreciate the fact that you are shedding a light on an important issue.


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