Children’s Brain Health: Supporting Our Most Vulnerable Population

Children’s Brain Health: Supporting Our Most Vulnerable Population

Millions of people experience brain health challenges, including young children and adolescents. However, one of the biggest challenges for parents and caregivers is learning how to recognize if a behavior is part of normal childhood development or a sign of a brain health issue. Parents may sometimes dismiss concerning behaviors, attributing warning signs to hormones and developmental phases or refusing to accept that their child needs help. Iowa’s Mental Health and Disability Services (MHDS) Regions are available to support children and their families with their brain health needs. Read this FAQ for answers on how to identify if your child needs help and what you should do.

How can I tell if it’s a phase or a brain health issue?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), parents should consider seeking help if their child’s behavior lasts longer than a few weeks, causes distress for the child and family, or interferes with the child’s functioning at home, in school and with family and friends. Some indicators that a child may be experiencing brain health issues include:

  • Frequent temper tantrums, irritability
  • Academic struggles
  • Low energy, loss of interest
  • Changes in sleep pattern
  • Self-isolation
  • Repetitive actions
  • Frequent worrying
  • High energy, inability to sit still
  • Difficulty communicating or making friends
  • Excessive dieting or exercise
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Destructive behavior
  • Suicidal tendencies

What types of brain health challenges do children experience?

Children and teens experience brain health challenges for many reasons. Just like adults, they’re under a lot of stress! Uneasiness at home, puberty, bullying, anxiety about making friends or getting good grades, preparing for life after high school, trauma, this list goes on! According to the NIMH, here are a few common mental health disorders children encounter.

Anxiety — Children typically have certain fears and anxieties growing up, but those that turn into more frequent, irrational and severe issues may be related to anxiety.

Depression — Children who are depressed may feel helpless and need immediate support. Indicators of depression in children include a feeling of constant sadness and irritability, self-isolation, changes in everyday routines, loss of energy, feelings of guilt and worthlessness and the desire to inflict self-harm or harm others.

Autism spectrum disorder — This developmental disorder can impact children of all ages, even those younger than elementary-aged students. Individuals living with autism may have trouble communicating and interacting with others.

 Eating disorders — A psychological condition, eating disorders can range in severity. If a child changes their eating and exercise habits and negatively talks about their body, they may be experiencing an eating disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — Significant life events such as the death of a loved one, injury and sexual and physical abuse can trigger PTSD. Children suffering from PTSD at an early age may be at risk of more long-term symptoms, so getting help early is imperative to their brain health.    

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — According to the CDC, ADHD is “one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood.” Signs include trouble focusing, forgetfulness, frequent movement/fidgeting and difficulty getting along with or interacting with people.

What can I do to improve my child’s brain health?

Parents/caregivers should stay positive and maintain the child’s trust, listen, understand and know where to turn for support. Children who grow up in a positive, loving environment are more likely to display those same behaviors in and outside the home. Parents and caregivers are the strongest mainstays to children's mental health, so it’s important parents and caregivers maintain their own brain health to create a positive environment for the child’s growth and development. Here are a few tips to improve children’s brain health.

  1. Connect with your local MHDS Region for support. Iowa’s MHDS Regions have trained staff who can assist you with locating resources for you and your child. They can work directly with children and their families and/or caregivers to discuss what’s happening and to determine a best path forward, whether it’s treatment, individual therapy, family therapy, education or other support mechanism.
  2. Stay positive and maintain your own brain health. Raising a child is stressful with constant worry about a child’s wellbeing, finances, academic abilities and more. However, parents/caregivers are their biggest supporters and first role models, so it’s important to stay positive and prioritize personal brain health to best support children’s brain health.
  3. Don’t betray their trust. It may be tempting to turn to other parents or online outlets to seek advice on dealing with brain health issues, but a child’s brain health is their own private matter and not all advice fits each child. And it’s important to not exploit their issues online or to other parents to get answers. Content published on social media and other online forums is there forever and could someday negatively affect the child. Several resources and professional mental health experts are available to provide confidential support so that privacy is protected.
  4. Listen and understand. Children may not be forthcoming with their problems. When they do share, keep an open mind, listen and understand that they are going through something and need support. If they’re not willing to open up, consider enlisting the assistance of an individual or a family therapist. Parents/caregivers can show the child they’re committed to seeking help and prioritizing the child’s brain health by offering to attend therapy sessions, if preferred.

Children should not feel alone in their path to brain health wellness. The Iowa MHDS Regions are here to support Iowans of all ages, in addition to their families and caregivers. Connect with your local region at And always remember that if your child displays unsafe behavior or has thoughts/actions that indicate they want to harm themselves or others, seeking help immediately is of the utmost importance. You can call the Your Life Crisis Line at 855-581-8111 or text 855-895-8398 or contact local law enforcement for immediate assistance.