While it’s common to feel stressed, unhappy, or anxious from time to time, some children experience these struggles on a regular basis. Children who have mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, can benefit from professional help. As a parent, how do you know if your child might need mental health help? Being able to recognize the signs that your child is struggling with mental health problems is important in order to make sure they get the help they need. The following guide can help parents learn to identify potential signs of mental health issues in children.

Understanding Mental Health in Children

Mental health refers to children’s emotions, moods, thoughts, and behaviors. Problems with mental health can end up affecting children’s overall health and well-being. They might have trouble learning at school or making friends. Mental health issues might also affect their physical well-being. The American Psychological Association estimates that 20 million children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with mental health disorders. Since these disorders can raise the risk of serious behavioral problems and affect their quality of life, it’s essential for parents to know the signs that their child needs help.

What are the most common mental health disorders in children? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these include anxiety, ADHD, depression, and behavioral problems. Millions of children have been diagnosed with these disorders. Keep in mind that these conditions can occur together, such as anxiety and depression or ADHD and anxiety.

General Signs Your Child Might Need Mental Health Help

How do you know if your child needs help? Although the exact signs can vary based on different mental health disorders, there are some general signs to watch for. Children of all ages might experience any of the following if they are struggling with mental health issues:

  • Mood changes or severe mood swings
  • Increased aggression
  • Feeling intensely afraid or worried
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Trouble concentrating

Younger children might exhibit other signs, such as throwing temper tantrums more than usual. Older children, such as teenagers, might show additional signs, including:

  • Failing to do schoolwork
  • Skipping school
  • Harming themselves
  • Using drugs or other substances

At what age do mental health issues start? The American Psychiatric Association states that mental health problems typically begin to occur around age 14. When children develop mental health issues, these struggles can lead to changes in their mood, behavior, or physical health. They might have unexpected weight loss due to stress, for example, or they might get into arguments or fights with others more often.

Depressed child at school

Specific Signs for Specific Conditions

Children might show certain signs, depending on the kind of mental health disorder they have. Remember that they can have more than one mental health disorder.

Children with depression might have low energy levels, fatigue, and trouble sleeping. They might also feel hopeless or sad, lose interest in activities they usually enjoy, and eat more or less than usual.

Anxiety disorders in children might cause them to have panic attacks, such as rapid breathing, dizziness, or sweating. They might also refuse to go to school or other places that make them nervous. Anxiety can also cause children to have intense fears of losing loved ones or severe worries about their future.

Children with ADHD might show specific signs of hyperactivity, such as being restless and unable to sit still. They might also be impulsive, easily distracted, and have strong emotional reactions to situations.

Eating disorders can cause children to restrict the amount or type of food they eat, force themselves to vomit after eating, or engage in exercise at an excessive level.

Keep in mind that specific signs of different mental health conditions can vary based on age. For example, older children with depression might be more likely to harm themselves. Younger children with anxiety might have temper tantrums more often if they don’t know how to explain the fear they’re feeling.

The Importance of Context

Taking context into consideration is important when you’re watching for signs of mental health in your child. Certain events or factors can lead to serious emotional or behavioral changes in children, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Examples of these events include life changes, such as moving to a new area, having a new sibling, or switching schools. Traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one, can also cause behavioral or emotional changes to occur.

How do you know if these are normal behavior changes or signs of potential mental health issues? If these changes continue for a prolonged period of time or become more severe, this usually indicates mental health problems. It’s best to seek help if you have any concerns about your child’s behavior.

Child at pediatrician office

What to Do if You Notice These Signs

Knowing what steps to take if your child is showing signs of potential mental health problems can help you make sure they get help as needed. If you’ve noticed any signs, talk to your child’s pediatrician. Tell your child’s doctor about their behavior, and bring up any other concerns you have about their mental health. A pediatrician can rule out physical conditions that might be causing behavioral or emotional changes in your child. You should also talk to teachers and other adults who interact with your child often.

Get in touch with a mental health professional, such as a child therapist or psychiatrist, who can provide help. Don’t attempt to diagnose your child yourself. Instead, let a professional handle this to help ensure an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

How to Talk to Your Child About Mental Health

How can you discuss mental health with your child? Bring up this topic in a non-judgmental and sensitive way that is respectful. Make sure your child knows that mental health issues are common, so that they don’t feel self-conscious or embarrassed. When talking about mental health, address your child’s feelings and emotions, and let them know that they can count on you for support.

Identifying mental health signs and seeking professional help early can help lower the risk of severe behavioral problems. As your child develops and goes through different stages of childhood, stay observant, be supportive, and take a proactive approach to addressing potential mental health issues.

About the Author: Amanda Delgado

Amanda Delgado has been writing about therapy and other mental health topics for more than a decade. She has a bachelor's degree in Psychology and a strong interest in therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.