Personality disorders in children are becoming a topic of discussion among the mental health community.
Personality disorders are defined as patterns of inner experience and behavior that differ from the expectations of a person’s culture. Reactions and behaviors are inflexible to this person, and they may not see other methods to behave or react in a situation. The symptoms must be stable over time and cause distress or impairment to the person’s quality of life. Furthermore, personality disorder symptoms and diagnosis often occurs in adolescence or early adulthood. It is possible to see signs of personality disorders in children early on in life.
Diagnosing Personality Disorders in Children
In the past, many mental health professionals were reluctant to diagnose people under 18 years old with a personality disorder. This is due to a child or teen’s overall development, biological changes, and psychological changes as they reach adulthood. However, it is possible for children to develop a number of the same personality disorders and mental health conditions as adults.
Many personality disorders are not diagnosed until later on in a person’s adulthood. During adulthood, many people tend to become impacted by the symptoms of a personality in multiple facets and aspects of life. For example, a person with a dependent personality disorder will experience more challenges as an adult when finding a job and attending work regularly is more important than when he or she was an adolescent.
However, many of the symptoms will differ in the way they are expressed and viewed in a child. Because of this factor, it can be hard to identify possible problems and developing symptoms of personality disorders in children.
Relationships with Others
Children with personality disorders tend to have difficulties having and maintaining healthy relationships with others. This can lead to the child feeling lonely and hopeless. Personality disorders in children can hinder their ability to have friends due to the presenting symptoms interfering with social activities.
For example, a child with a personality disorder will act on impulse. He or she can hit a peer who does not want to play a game, rather than rationalizing their actions before hitting or compromising with their peer. As a result, it can be difficult for a child with a personality disorder to have and keep friends in schools.
Changes in Mood or Emotions
A common trait parents notice in their children who may have a personality disorders is a change in his or her mood or overall feelings expressed. Children often express their feelings in a number of ways. If a child is feeling sad, he or she may have difficulty concentrating, lash out at peers, irritable, or socially withdrawn. A child with a personality disorder will say they feel “empty”, or express their detachment from others.
Personality disorders in children and adolescents can distort their self-image or sense of self too. Many children also express have physical symptoms, such as a headache or upset stomach. Other times, children may have strong emotional outbursts, which is described as an emotional dysregulation.
Adolescent emotional outbursts can be easily misinterpreted by parents as acts of rebellion or defiance. Although many children have strong emotional reactions, these reactions tend to be more frequent and extreme when looking at personality disorders in children.
Self-destructive behaviors can also be a sign of a possible personality disorder. These behaviors include self-harm (i.e. cutting), contemplating harming themselves or others, and thoughts of suicide.
A child or adolescent may also engage in risky behavior. Some examples include sneaking out at night, participating in dangerous activities, or start using substances. Parents should monitor and address these behaviors as the child is at a risk of harming themselves or those around them.
Treatment of Personality Disorders in Children
Psychotherapy is often an effective treatment option for parents concerned with a possible personality disorder in their child. Psychotherapists can help parents address defiant or disruptive behaviors, anxieties, depression, and other symptoms the child is facing.
In addition, psychotherapy techniques can help families to develop skills to enhance attachment, improve communication, and improve the family dynamic. Many mental health professionals will have children with personality disorders participate in both individual and family psychotherapy sessions.
The family is an important part of the overall treatment process. Furthermore, personality disorders in children often require for the family members to maintain their support and build a stronger relationship with the patient.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a beneficial therapeutic option for adolescents who have issues with self-harming behaviors. Research shows DBT also lessens suicidal ideations and behaviors. Self-injury behaviors are often present in adolescents who have similar symptoms to borderline personality disorder. DBT works well for personality disorders in children.
Children and adolescents are able to learn about mindfulness, tolerating distress, regulating their emotions, and enhance their interpersonal relationships. As a result, the child will learn how to cope with stress and control their emotions. They will also enhance their social interactions with others.
Mental illnesses can be difficult for children to go through. An adequate amount of support is necessary for improving a child’s overall quality of life. Children with personality disorders may not fully understand the changes they are going through or how to react to these changes. Despite going through a difficult time, parents should make time to have fun and relax with their child.
Personality disorders in children can be a confusing and overwhelming time for the child. However, an early diagnosis is beneficial as the mental health professional can help the family cope with the symptoms. Most importantly, this can help work through current problems before they increase.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Mayo Clinic. (2018). Mental illness in children: Know the signs.