Coming soon: AboutKidsHealth is getting a new look! Learn more Watch a video tour

Brain disorders and mental health: Overview


What are brain disorders?

Brain disorders include underlying genetic and medical conditions, brain injuries and illnesses that affect the brain and how it develops both before birth and throughout childhood development. The brain can also be affected by certain medical treatments and exposure to certain toxins.

Common brain disorders include:

How are mental health conditions related to brain disorders?

The brain manages the most complex of human functions such as thinking, problem solving, emotions, consciousness and social behaviour.

A brain disorder can alter a child's typical development. This can contribute to certain mental health issues related to their learning or behaviour depending on their age and the type and severity of the brain disorder.

Generally, mental health issues can arise from one, or both, of the following:

  • difficulties with thinking, communication, emotional control and social skills
  • difficulties adjusting to the stress associated with living with a brain disorder.

Difficulties with cognitive abilities – how the brain thinks

Mental health issues can be directly related to the way the brain is affected by a condition or injury. The changes in brain structure and connections as a result of a brain disorder can cause a child to have difficulties thinking, controlling behaviour and dealing with emotions and stress. This is illustrated by the following examples.

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common diagnoses following an illness or injury that affects the brain.
  • Learning and intellectual disabilities are also frequent in children who have a brain disorder.
  • Symptoms of depression and anxiety are also common outcomes. Sometimes these relate to the pattern of the brain injury, which may lead a child or teen to get stuck on persistent negative thoughts.
  • Children with different types of brain injury may also struggle socially because of their difficulties communicating and knowing how to act with other kids.

Difficulties adjusting to and coping with a brain disorder

Adjusting to or coping with the effects of to a childhood brain injury or a related condition can be stressful and can increase mental health issues for children and their families. Common experiences may include:

  • child frustration and sadness about their perceived differences at school or with peers (which may become more apparent in their teen years)
  • child and parent stress about frequent doctor and hospital visits
  • parental worry about a child’s current and future education and independence
  • changes in parent-child relationships related to increased parental monitoring, attention or worry. This can become especially challenging when a teen wants more independence but needs parental monitoring and reminders for their health.

What to do if you think your child has a mental health issue related to their brain disorder

There are a number of things you can do if you are concerned about a mental health issue in your child.

  • You can raise your concerns with your child’s neurologist or neurology team.
  • You can talk to your family doctor.
  • You can ask your child’s doctor or neurology team for a neuropsychological assessment​.
  • You can share your concerns with your child’s teachers or school principal.

Key points

  • Brain disorder is an all-inclusive term for disruption to the brain because of an underlying medical condition, illness or injury.
  • A child with a brain disorder should have a thorough assessment to check for any related mental health conditions.
  • ADHD, learning disability, social challenges, depression and anxiety are commonly linked with brain disorders.
  • If you suspect that a mental health issue is connected to your child’s brain disorder, talk to your family doctor or your child’s neurologist, ask for input from your child’s teachers and consider a neuropsychological assessment.

Further information

For more information on brain disorders and related mental health challenges, please see the following pages:

Brain disorders and​ mental health: Assessing your child for neuropsychological difficulties

Brain disorders and mental health: H​ow to help your child cope

Brain disorders and mental health: Common tre​atments​​

Kyla McDonald, MA, PhD (c)

Tricia Williams, PhD, C Psych, ABPP-CN​



The following books offer useful information about brain disorders and related mental health issues.

Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2009). Smart but Scattered. New York, NY: The Guildford Press.

Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2010). Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents. New York, NY: The Guildford Press.

Greene, R. W. (2014). The Explosive Child. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Guare, R. & Dawson, P. (2013). Smart but Scattered TEENS. New York, NY: The Guildford Press.

Huebner, D. (2005). What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Anxiety. Magination Press.

Siegel, D. J. (2013).  Brainstorm. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Siegal, D. J. & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The Whole Brain Child. New York, NY: Random House.​​