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Diagnoses and Symptoms

What do all those letters mean? ADHD... ODD.. PTSD... OCD... SED... Do you feel like you need a secret decoder book to understand your child's therapist or social worker?

Thank you to MACMH for compiling this list of Acronyms Related to Children’s Mental Health and Special Education

Mental Health Disorders are sometimes grouped into categories. For example, ADHD is often categorized as a "behavior disorder" and Depression is a "mood disorder." As kids get older, their diagnoses may change.


Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety Disorders are the most common mental health disorders in children. Kids with anxiety disorders have worry, fear, or stress that interferes with their lives at school, at home, and with friends. This category often includes phobias, OCD, separation anxiety, social anxiety, PTSD etc.

All children experience some anxiety. Anxiety in children is expected and normal at specific times in development. For example, from approximately age 8 months through the preschool years, healthy youngsters may show intense distress (anxiety) at times of separation from their parents or other people with whom they are close. Young children may have short-lived fears, such as fear of the dark, storms, animals, or a fear of strangers.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2019


Behavior Disorders

Behavior Disorders can include diagnoses such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD/ ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a disorder that affects how kids solve problems, plan ahead, understand others’ actions, and control their impulses.

Many children and adults are easily distracted at times or have trouble finishing tasks. To be ADHD, however, the behaviors must appear before age 7 and continue for at least six months. The symptoms must also create a real handicap in at least two areas of the child’s life—in the classroom, on the playground, at home, in the community, or in social settings.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2019

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can present without out hyperactivity. This diagnosis is called ADD. Kids with ADD are often forgetful and lose things. Teachers might say they “stare off into space” at school.

All children are oppositional from time to time, particularly when tired, hungry, stressed, or upset. They may argue, talk back, disobey, and defy parents, teachers, and other adults. Oppositional behavior is a normal part of development for two to three year olds and early adolescents.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2019

ODD and Conduct Disorder are behavioral disorders that last months or years. Kids show an ongoing pattern of defiant or hurtful behavior that interferes with their day to day lives. This is not the same as the occassional misconduct or oppositional behavior that we expect from all kids.

Most infants and young children are very social creatures who need and want contact with others to thrive and grow. They smile, cuddle, laugh, and respond eagerly to games like "peek-a-boo" or hide-and-seek. Occasionally, however, a child does not interact in this expected manner. Instead, the child seems to exist in his or her own world, a place characterized by repetitive routines, odd and peculiar behaviors, problems in communication, and a total lack of social awareness or interest in others. These are characteristics of a developmental disorder called autism.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2019

Autism (or, autism spectrum disorder) is a developmental disorder-not a mental health disorder. Autism symptoms typically emerge by age 2 or 3 and diagnoses can be made as early a 18 months. Children who are “on the spectrum” have a wide variety of symptoms. I included Autism in this section because kids on the Autism spectrum may display several challenging behaviors (in addition to developmental delays and difficulties with social interaction and communication.)

Kids on the Autism spectrum frequently have co-occurring mental health disorders like ADHD.


Mood Disorders

Mood disorders may include Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia and psychosis.

Many children have times when they are sad or down. Occasional sadness is a normal part of growing up. However, if children are sad, irritable, or no longer enjoy things, and this occurs day after day, it may be a sign that they are suffering from major depressive disorder, commonly known as depression.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2019

While everyone has good and bad moods, the unprovoked and intense highs and lows of people with bipolar disorder can be unpredictable, extreme, and debilitating. Many parents are challenged by a child who has extreme changes in mood, energy, thinking, and behavior. Careful evaluation will find that some of these children are suffering from a mental disorder. Yet, only a very few of those will have bipolar disorder.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2019

Youth with Bipolar Disorder have intense mood episodes. In teens, these episodes can last 1 or 2 weeks. Children may have many ups and downs in a day and they do not always have sleep issues. Although mania is more common in teens and adults, children can also have mania-like symptoms and some medicaitons can trigger mania-like symptoms. Mania can be dangerous. Get help right away if you think your child/teen is exhibiting mania or mania-like symptoms.

The behavior of children with schizophrenia may change slowly over time. For example, children who used to enjoy relationships with others may start to become more shy or withdrawn and seem to be in their own world. Sometimes youngsters will begin talking about strange fears and ideas. They may start to say things that do not make sense. These early symptoms and problems may first be noticed by the child's teachers. Children with these symptoms must have a complete evaluation.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2019

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder in which a child loses touch with reality. Symptoms may appear slowly and build gradually over time. The average age of onset tends to be in the late teens to the early 20s for men, and the late 20s to early 30s for women. It is uncommon for schizophrenia to be diagnosed in a person younger than 12.

Psychosis can develop gradually or suddenly. Children and youth may begin talking about strange fears and ideas. They may start to cling to parents or say things that do not make sense. Others who used to enjoy relationships with peers may become more shy or withdrawn or seem to be in their own world.Psychotic symptoms can be seen in youth with depression, bipolar disorder (manic-depression), schizophrenia, and with some forms of alcohol and drug abuse.


Final Thoughts

The most important thing to remember is that mental health disorders can get worse without treatment and support. If you think that your child/teen is struggling with emotional or behavioral challenges- get help as soon as possible.

Other Learning

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Facts for Families

NAMI MN Fact Sheets


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