Psychiatric Disorders/childhood disorders/Clinical symptoms and classification

A major issue differentiating child and adolescent psychiatry from practice with adults is that the content of symptoms varies across the child and adolescent developmental span. Consider the example of depression. The symptoms displayed by older adolescents are often identical to the adult criteria for a major depressive disorder, for example a pervasively lowered mood, often with diurnal mood change, anhedonia, neurovegetative changes in sleep, appetite, weight and energy and typical depressive cognitions of helplessness, hopelessness and possibly suicidal thinking. This is very different from the picture seen in younger children. An eight year old, for example, can become profoundly depressed in mood without much in the way of depressive cognitions and is unlikely to report suicidal thinking. The very young child may seem sad without much verbal elaboration, relatively mute and markedly withdrawn with no pleasure in play or during other typical childhood activities. Uncertainties over whether a low mood in a younger child without significant depressive cognitions is the equivalent of a more adult type picture in an older adolescent, have, in the past, and perhaps in the present too, lead to difficulties in making valid diagnoses particularly in the younger age group.

Another group of disorders which show considerable variation with age are the anxiety disorders. Fear of the dark is so common in very young children as to be normal. However, with increasing age fears become more related to social interaction such as fear about being asked questions or giving presentations in class, difficulties talking to peers, or to adults when attempting to buy food, clothes or bus tickets. Similarly, age differences are seen in the anti-social domain; younger children rarely engage in assault with weapons or force others into sexual activity, these are features of conduct disturbance in older age groups.

Often clinicians will ask screening questions about typical externalising and internalising symptoms. Considering the former, disruptive young children are oppositional, defiant, easily angered, have prolonged or severe tantrums and actively defy authority figures. Older children and adolescents engage in aggressive behaviour: fighting, bullying, sometimes using a weapon, cruelty to animals or forcing others into sexual activity. They may also steal or vandalise property. The oppositional defiant behaviour seen at a younger age may also persist into adolescence. Other common behavioural presentations are inattentive and/or hyperactive behaviour which may occur in isolation or co-occur with aggressive or defiant behaviour. Children with these symptoms may demonstrate problems with their ability to maintain age-appropriate attention and concentration, problems controlling impulsivity or demonstrate hyperactive behaviour. “Age-appropriate’ is a key construct in that there may be a considerable gap between this and the behaviour expected by parents. The latter can be either too permissive or inappropriately demanding for the child’s developmental stage. The symptoms are often prominent in classroom settings; they are of greater significance if they are present across numerous settings, typically including home and school. Hyperactive symptoms include the sense that child is always moving, cannot remain still even for an enjoyable activity and the behaviour may lead to dangerous play with risk of injury. Another group of behavioural presentations are the stereotypical, repetitive behaviors such as hand twirling or flapping or unusual mannerisms seen in children with autism and pervasive developmental disorders. Such behaviours have no functional significance, begin early in life and often persist. These behaviours should be differentiated from tics, for instance seen with Tourettes disorder or from medication side effects such as may be caused by some anti-psychotic medication. Autistic children may also demonstrate hyperactive and aggressive behaviours.

Internalising symptoms are often considered to be synonymous with anxiety and depressive symptoms. However, a broader definition is probably more useful. This would for example, include the body image disturbance typical of eating disorders. Many internalizing symptoms have been previously mentioned in this chapter. Childhood fears are common. In young children these are often poorly elaborated fearful feelings. With increased age they may be associated with cognitions typical of panic such as pre-event wishes to avoid the situation, or feelings that symptoms such as tachycardia are evidence of impending physical illness or death. Other common anxiety symptoms of children are obsessional thoughts, especially about ‘germ’s or poisons, fears about school, and nightmares seen in Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As with anxiety, depressive symptoms too change with age. In younger children they are not specific, and often take the form of a desire to withdraw and be alone and a general lowered mood. With age the child may become more pessimistic, hopeless and feel they are worthless or incompetent. From the mid-teen years onwards suicidal thoughts are common. These are of more concern if the thoughts are accompanied by detailed planning and a desire to enact the plan. In children and adolescents it is useful to identify the symptom of anhedonia (loss of the typical pleasure response). It is unusual for primary-school age children to avoid parties or activities and lose interest in interacting with friends. Adolescents can often describe an altered sense of pleasure; the younger child may not be able to describe this change. However, parents are often able to report this phenomenon as altered behavior – parents notice the child does not take as much pleasure in their usually enjoyed activities.


It is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss all symptoms seen in child adolescent psychiatric practice. Many low prevalence conditions have typical or pathognomic symptoms such as eating non nutritious substances (Pica), being persistently mute despite normal speech and vocalisation apparatus, especially when outside the home environment (Selective Mutism), deficiencies in reciprocal social awareness and behaviours (Autism and Pervasive developmental disorder), tics, encopresis, enuresis and disturbances of attachment to name some. A comprehensive child adolescent mental health text is recommended to further study such conditions.

Attachment related symptoms are common and require some comment. Infants, including very young children are innately social and from birth demonstrate a repertoire of behaviours that promote attachment to parents, primary caregivers and other adults. Normal, adaptive, ‘secure’ attachment behaviour is demonstrated by the infant maintaining suitable proximity to the parent, a willingness to explore the environment whilst repeatedly seeking assurance and a developing ability to self-soothe during brief periods of separation. Attachment styles where the infant is more anxious, ambivalent or disorganized include infants who are overly vigilant and excessively watchful, overly withdrawn or inconsistent in developmentally appropriate social interactions. Such behaviours are more likely to cause both current difficulties with establishing eating and sleeping and other routines, as well as the infant being more likely to develop mental health problems during later childhood.

Last modified on 10 June 2009, at 17:29