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Talk About Mental Health Concerns With Your Child’s Primary Care Provider

When you have a concern about your child’s physical health, a common first step is to contact your child’s primary care provider. Did you know contacting your child’s primary care provider is a smart first step in addressing concerns related to their mental health too?

Many pediatricians are trained to assist with a wide variety of social, emotional, and behavioral health concerns, and your primary care provider (PCP) can also refer you to specialists, if needed. Some pediatricians have behavioral health specialists in their office.

Most insurance providers allow for one annual checkup at no cost to you. These “well” or “preventive” visits to your child’s pediatrician are excellent opportunities to ensure your child is healthy and to ask any questions you may have about your child’s social, emotional, and behavioral health.

Taking advantage of these well visits can help identify and address needs early on. For example, younger children who receive recommended screenings from their PCPs could be directed to early intervention programs, if needed.

Always keep in mind that you can schedule a visit to see your PCP any time you have a question or concern.

Watch for Signs

If you notice any of the following signs in your child, you may want to discuss your observations during a visit to your PCP.

In younger children:

  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Excessive worrying
  • Sudden or intense fears (may be accompanied by fast heartbeat or breathing)
  • Avoiding friends and family; wanting to be alone
  • Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Sleep problems, such as difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep or bed-wetting
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Changes or decline in school performance; bad grades despite trying hard
  • Refusing to go to daycare or school
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Difficulty concentrating or completing tasks
  • Frequent complaints about physical problems or ailments
  • Persistent disobedient or aggressive behavior; fighting

In older children and adolescents:

  • Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Changes in school performance; failing grades
  • Inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical problems
  • Defying authority, skipping school, stealing or damaging property
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Long-lasting negative mood, often along with poor appetite and thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger
  • Drastic changes in behavior or personality; mood swings
  • Excessive worrying
  • Withdrawal; avoiding family and friends
  • Sadness or hopelessness that lasts more than two weeks
  • Self-harming behaviors

Be prepared: Your child’s doctor may ask you to fill out a form that requires you to check off symptoms your child may have, and to indicate if the symptom is mild or severe and how often it occurs.

Tips for Talking to Your Doctor

Sometimes it can feel uncomfortable to ask your child’s doctor certain questions. It’s important to remember that all mental health concerns are treatable, and your child’s symptoms are not a reflection of your parenting.

Keep in mind that mental health issues are surprisingly common among children under the age of 6, and up to 10 percent of all young children have significant emotional and behavioral issues. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 20 percent of youth ages 13–18 live with a mental health condition.

Here are some suggestions on how to start conversations with your PCP about your child’s mental health:

  • Write down your questions and concerns before your appointment and bring them with you.
  • Keep a diary that records your child's symptoms, when they occur and other related information. This can be helpful in recalling information during a doctor’s visit.
  • Communicate your concerns at the beginning of the appointment rather than waiting until the end. You may see a nurse or physician assistant before the doctor. They may be able to answer some questions for you, leaving more time to spend with the doctor.
  • Doctors may seem rushed, so slow the conversation to a pace you’re comfortable with.
  • When answers seem detailed or complicated, it’s helpful to repeat answers back to make sure you understand them.
  • Take notes on your doctor’s answers, so you can refer to them later.
  • If your child is older, encourage them to participate in the visit and ask their own questions.

Additional Resources

If you have TennCare, learn how to get in touch with your child's health plan.

A mental health crisis is an intense behavioral, emotional, substance use or psychiatric issue that, if left untreated, could result in an emergency situation. If you or someone you know is having a mental health crisis or thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) or the statewide crisis hotline at 855-CRISIS-1 (855-274-7471).