GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -Although we like to think of childhood as a time of joy and innocence, the American Psychological Association estimates that about 15 million children in the U.S. have a diagnosable mental health disorder and millions more are at risk because of inherent or environmental factors. Yet only about 7% of these young people receive the help they need.

So, to what extent can these disorders be prevented? How can parents recognize the signs that their child might have a mental health problem? And why is it important to seek professional help as early as possible?

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, developmental psychologistDr. Marti Ericksonjoined us to discuss this important topic.

Here are Dr. Marti's tips for recognizing signs of a possible mental health issue in your child.

1. Severity, frequency and duration of troubling behavior
It's normal for toddlers to throw tantrums, 1-year-olds to have separation anxiety, and young teens to get sassy. But when those behaviors become a persistent pattern and continue beyond the time they are considered age-appropriate, that is a sign that the child's social and emotional development (mental health) may be off track.

2.Interference with a child's participation in (and enjoyment of) age-appropriate activities
If a child's attitudes and behavior stand in the way of making friends, building positive relationships with adults, being focused and persistent in learning tasks, or enjoying play and exploration, that is a sign of a problem that needs professional attention.

3.A sudden change in friendships, school performance or other behaviors
Especially as children move toward adolescence, these major changes may signal depression, substance abuse or other mental health problems. Although it is common for young adolescents to seek greater privacy, to be moodier, or to question parents' rules and values, it is not typical or healthy for young people to become belligerent, isolated, disengaged from school and other activities, or to make a major shift in their social network.

If you see these signs in your child, consult with your child's doctor, who can refer you to a mental health professional who will do an evaluation to determine your child's needs. To learn more about a wide variety of child development and mental health topics, visit

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