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Mental Health Misdiagnoses in Children: What to Look Out for in Diagnosing Childhood Mental Health Disorders

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When a child has mental health issues, getting the right treatment and care for that child is critical. Unfortunately, many children are misdiagnosed with the wrong mental health disorder, which ultimately means they may not receive adequate treatment. Find out why mental health misdiagnoses happen so often in children, what conditions are most commonly misdiagnosed, and the impact of misdiagnosis below.

Why Mental Health Issues Are Commonly Misdiagnosed in Children

When a child complains of a tummy ache, it is understood that several conditions could be to blame. The problem might be something simple such as having eaten too much sugar or a stomach virus — but a tummy ache could be more serious if caused by a parasite or infection. A pediatrician visit will involve a series of questions and tests to make an accurate diagnosis. Naturally, your child’s condition will only improve with the right diagnosis and treatment.

Just as one physical symptom can indicate a range of issues, one emotional symptom can be associated with a number of mental health disorders. It is easy to wrongly associate symptoms with a condition that is not actually to blame. Therefore, a thorough, in-depth evaluation is crucial if a mental health condition is suspected in a child. Furthermore, ongoing monitoring is critical to ensure the diagnosis is correct and treatment is working.

Most Common Mental Health Misdiagnoses in Children

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is the most common mental health diagnosis for children between the ages of 3 and 17. Typically, an ADHD diagnosis occurs when the child is inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive. However, there are other causes for these symptoms, and many are not mental health issues at all. For example, younger children may be naturally hyperactive or impulsive or may simply have a delay in learning self-discipline. Likewise, children can have difficulty with attention and impulsivity if they’re not getting enough sleep, are hungry, or are worried about something at school or home.

Other mental health issues may be to blame as well, such as:

Lastly, ADHD is commonly misdiagnosed among children with learning disorders such as dyslexia.


Depression during childhood and adolescence affects roughly 2% of children before puberty and up to 8% of adolescents. While depression is relatively common among children, the mental health issue is also commonly misdiagnosed and mistreated. Depression diagnoses typically come with symptoms such as sadness, fatigue, weight fluctuations, and decreased interest in activities. While these are definitely symptoms of depression, other causes can be to blame, such as:

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder during adolescence only affects up to 3% of children. However, this condition is commonly misdiagnosed when a child experiences drastic changes in activity levels, energy, or mood. These behaviors can simply be related to childhood and a lack of emotional stability. However, the symptoms can also be associated with other conditions such as borderline personality disorder.


Roughly 1% of children are diagnosed with autism, and rates of the condition have grown over the years. Nevertheless, autism spectrum disorder is not as common as most people assume. An autism diagnosis is common if a child has social communication and interaction problems, doesn’t speak or has speech development issues, or portrays repetitive or restrictive behaviors. These symptoms can also be associated with:

  • Certain anxiety disorders, such as selective mutism
  • OCD
  • Speech impediments
  • An age-related desire for routine

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is characterized by symptoms such as repetitive distressing thoughts or flashbacks. Many children (up to 43% of girls and boys) go through at least one instance of trauma in their young lives. However, PTSD may not always be to blame. OCD can also be characterized by repetitive thoughts that interfere with daily life, for example.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)

ODD is exceptionally common, with 1% to 16% of school-aged children and adolescents being affected. An ODD diagnosis can come after the child portrays temper tantrums, emotional outbursts, disruptive behaviors, or hostile, defiant behaviors. Nevertheless, ODD shares symptoms with other conditions, such as OCD, ADHD, or an undiagnosed learning disorder.

What Happens When a Child Is Inaccurately Diagnosed?

Inaccurate mental health diagnoses in childhood can have several damaging repercussions. Children may grow up believing they have certain mental health disorders when that is not the case. Additionally, they may feel that something is wrong with them because the recommended treatment isn’t working. An inaccurate diagnosis can also lead to worsened dysfunction for a few reasons, including:

  • The child is taking the wrong medications, which could exacerbate some symptoms (e.g., ADHD medications could exacerbate anxiety).
  • The condition gets worse because the actual condition is overlooked.
  • New symptoms emerge due to inappropriate levels of or tactics during therapy.

Infographic provided by MySpectrum, counseling center

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialists can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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Accurate Mental Health Diagnosis Protects the Child’s Future

Mental health misdiagnoses in childhood can be detrimental to a child’s well-being in the long term. The wrong treatment, such as online autism therapy when ODD therapy is more appropriate, can expose the child to inadequate solutions that could potentially worsen the situation and the child’s mental health. Therefore, any time a mental health issue is suspected, working closely with an experienced therapist is imperative.

To learn more about the importance of correctly diagnosing children’s mental health issues, please check out the accompanying resource.

About the Author: Suzy Christopher, LCSW, is Director and a co-founder of MySpectrum Counseling & Coaching. She has been serving in clinical social work and leadership roles since 2002.

Photo by Alexander Grey: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-kid-with-multicolored-hand-paint-1148998/

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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