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Why do kids struggle with mental health disorders? What causes these psychological problems in children? There are no easy answers to this question, and the riddle as to what causes mental illness is unique to every child. That said, this information will give you an overview of the different factors that play a role.

Common risk factors for psychological problems in children & teens

Research over the years has turned up a number of risk factors for psychological problems in children. Here’s a summary of those risk factors for mental illness, ranked according to their relative influence:

High risk:

  • Parental death
  • Spending time in foster care or placement into CPS custody
  • Parental abandonment
  • Depression or mental illness in a parent
  • Experiencing chronic verbal or emotional abuse

Moderate risk:

  • A history of mental illness in the family
  • Parental substance abuse
  • Living in poverty/low SES
  • A history of adoption
  • Divorce (i.e., living through a parent’s divorce)
  • Experiencing child abuse
  • Being bullied
  • Overprotective parenting
  • Family conflict

Elevated risk:

  • Living in an urban environment
  • Growing up with a single parent
  • Smoking during pregnancy (in utero exposure)
  • Preterm birth
  • Exposure to air pollution
  • Other chemical exposures.

Anything that threatens the security of a child’s attachments or their sense of belonging has a strong link to future psychological problems. Next to that, pathology in a parent is the next strongest predictor of mental illness in children. Not only is there a possible genetic link, but children absorb their environment. So if a caregiver is struggling, that person’s negative way of thinking and their overall mood tends to seep down to infect their children as well.

It’s important to note that these are risk factors only – they do not foretell the future, and experiencing one or more of these things does not mean it will “cause” a child to develop mental illness. The strongest of these risk factors, (being placed in foster care or CPS custody), results in a psychological disorder for around 60-80% of the children who experience it. Most of the other “moderate” risk factors hover around 30% or less. Which means most children can survive these things and come out with their mental faculties in tact.

As these risk factors start to stack up, however, the odds of a child developing psychological problems will increase. The overall environment they inhabit is also extremely important: kids with lots of love from different sources who are surrounded by positive cognitive styles can survive quite a lot and remain in tact, whereas kids with fewer resources may start to crumble after experiencing much less adversity.

How stress can cause psychological problems in children

Obviously, living a stressful life increases the probability that a child will struggle and develop mental health problems. Like a rubber band stretched beyond its limits, the more stress you pile onto a person’s shoulders, the more likely they are to snap.

brain that can increase the risk for mental illness. For example, chronic stress is known to increase inflammation, and inflammation has been identified as a contributing factor in depression and other mental health problems. The stress hormone cortisol also changes the way the brain functions, dampening activity in the reasoning areas while amplifying activity in the “lower,” more primitive regions of the brain. While this might be helpful when dealing with immediate and tangible threats, it becomes highly destructive when a person is dealing with high amounts of chronic stress.

Severe, chronic stress can actually change the structure of the brain, inhibiting neuron growth in the cognitive reasoning areas of the mind while promoting more connectivity and stronger reactions in the more impulsive emotional areas of the brain. Over time, high amounts of chronic stress can add up to what is effectively brain damage. Since the same brain areas hindered by stress are those most important for cognitive functioning and emotional regulation, chronic stress essentially crafts a brain that is more susceptible to mental illness.

Genetic causes of mental illness in children & teens: Can a child inherit psychological problems?

Some of the risk for mental illness is undoubtedly genetic, especially for certain disorders such as schizophrenia. That said, genes are not destiny, and studies have thus far failed to turn up any strong and convincing link between genes and any of the common mental health disorders. Even when a genetic link is hinted at, it can be difficult to tease out whether these genetic associations are truly due to biology versus something else. After all, children who share the same hereditary genes also tend to share similar hereditary environments.

If you were to tally up every study that has ever purported to find a link between a particular gene and susceptibility to mental illness, it still wouldn’t account for more than 2% or so the variance. Of course, there’s still an awful lot we don’t know, and most scientists estimate that up to 30% of the risk for mental health disorders could be hereditary. Even if this is true, it would still mean that environmental factors play the primary and deciding role in whether or not a child develops mental illness.

Environmental causes of mental illness in children & teens

Aside from the risk factors already discussed, a number of environmental factors can contribute to a child’s psychological problems:

Family environment
Kids are to a large extent a product of their environment. So when a child is struggling it’s often not the child that’s broken, but the home environment they come from. “I deal with a lot of children, and that means I deal with a lot of parents,” says Tushonda Boyd, a therapist in Gulfport, Mississippi. “Often my kids aren’t the problem – my parents are the problem.” (Fagan, 2022) This may not be the easiest thing for parents to hear, but it’s a necessary one. None of us are perfect, and any attempt to fix a child’s mental health problems will fail if you’re not also addressing the environment that’s triggering them.

Just because a child is struggling with mental health issues doesn’t mean the child is the one who’s crazy. Psychological struggles are often a rational response to a poor environment. When parents are too constraining or don’t allow a child the freedom and autonomy to grow; when they have rigid rules or overly demanding expectations; when they push hectic and overscheduled lives on children; or when they interact with their kids in abrasive and demeaning ways, their children are going to suffer. If a family is dysfunctional, you can hardly expect a child to be functioning at their peak psychological health.

True to this principle, studies consistently find that family therapy produces better results than simply putting a child or teen in individual therapy. Anyone looking to address the causes of a child’s psychological struggles needs to consider their environment as a whole.

Screen time & social media
Studies have repeatedly found that kids who spend more time on social media or sitting in front of a screen are at higher risk for mental health disorders. (See our page on social media and child mental health.)

Inadequate sleep
Lack of sleep can be another significant factor in the development of mental health problems in children and teens, and it’s one that’s often overlooked. Sleep deprived youth show increased activity in the amygdala and decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which in layman’s terms means more erratic emotions and a decreased ability to regulate or control them. (Lite, 2010) Studies have found that even a 40 minute daily difference between teens who got 7 1/2 hours of sleep a night versus those who received 8 hours and 10 minutes translated into more psychological problems: A 24% increase in rates of depression, and a 20% increase in suicidal thoughts. (Lite, 2010; Painter, 2010)

“Every aspect of brain health is related to sleep quality and quantity,” says neuroscientist Michael Scallin. “We even found in a recent study that people were less likely to forgive each other when they got six hours of sleep than when they got seven and a half or eight hours. When I see all of the impulsive, aggressive, negative messages people send to one another, especially on social media, I have to wonder if lack of sleep isn’t part of the reason.” (Harrar, 2020)

Poor diet
Just as a lack of sleep impairs brain functioning, so does a poor diet. “A growing body of research over the past decades shows that a healthy diet – high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and unprocessed lean red meat – can prevent” mental health disorders such as depression. An unhealthy diet, meanwhile, increases the risk “in everyone, including children and teens.” (Bernstein, 2018) There are several possible reasons for this. First, unhealthy diets (such as those heavy on processed foods that are loaded with fat, carbs and sugar) increase inflammation throughout the body and brain. The other is that the brain is an organ, and just like other parts of the body, it needs certain things to function properly. So diets lacking in omega-3 fatty acids or B vitamins can result in mental deterioration. Third, processed foods tend to produce a quick glucose rush followed by a crash, and this uneven energy supply can toy with people’s moods. Thus many people report that eating a healthier diet resulted in drastic improvements in mood. (Ludwig, 2016)

Substance use
Drug and alcohol use can trigger mental illness in youth, especially in those who might be genetically predisposed to it. Substance abuse damages the brain, and it’s especially brutal on those areas that are most important for psychological functioning: namely, the areas that regulate emotion and those responsible for maintaining our grip on reality.

Addiction can be both a cause and a consequence of psychological problems: Many teens start using as a way to self-medicate in response to their struggles, and the more they use, the more prone they become to all variety of mental health problems.

Why kids struggle with mental illness: the bigger picture

There’s seldom one singular cause for a child’s struggles. Rather, it’s usually a confluence of things that come together to cause mental health problems. Likewise, working to cure their condition isn’t an all-or-nothing game. Any improvements you can make to any of the underlying causes of mental illness is likely to help.

Additional information on the causes of mental illness in children and teens:

The following pages will discuss some of these topics in greater detail:

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