Signs Your Child May Be Struggling With Mental Health Issues

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Identifying mental health issues in children can be tricky. It can be difficult to determine whether your child’s behaviors are normal or signs of a mental health condition.

However, it’s important to identify and treat mental health issues in children because they can affect the child’s behavior, ability to learn, and emotional development, to the point where the child may have difficulty getting through the day.

This article lists some signs of mental health issues in young children and teenagers, as well as some steps you can take if you suspect your child has a mental health condition.

Signs of Mental Health Issues in Young Children

Infants, toddlers, and young children may not be able to communicate what they’re experiencing, but you may notice changes or abnormalities in their behavior or development.

These are some signs of mental health issues in infants, toddlers and young children:

  • Irritability: Your child is often fussy and irritable. They startle easily and cry frequently. You might find it difficult to pacify them once they start crying.
  • Difficulty sleeping: Your child has difficulty falling asleep, wakes up frequently during the night, or has intense nightmares.
  • Gastrointestinal problems: Your child has feeding issues, or experiences gastrointestinal difficulties such as nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, or constipation.
  • Bedwetting: Your child wets the bed even after they’ve been potty trained.
  • Anxious behavior: Your child displays anxious behaviors such as clinging to family members, not being able to tolerate separation from them, being intimidated by new people, and being scared to leave their home.
  • Aggressive behavior: Your child displays disobedience, frustration, or aggression by hitting, kicking, biting, or throwing frequent tantrums.
  • Developmental issues: Your child has not reached developmental milestones they should have achieved for their age. Or, they are progressing backward in terms of skills and developmental milestones, and are no longer able to perform tasks that they had previously been able to do.

Signs of Mental Health Issues in Teenagers

Adolescents and teenagers may react differently to mental health conditions. For instance, people may assume that a teenager who’s acting out is going through a typical teenage phase that they’ll eventually grow out of; however, they may in fact be struggling with a mental health condition.

These are some of the signs of mental health conditions in adolescents and teenagers:

  • Being irritable or angry frequently
  • Feeling overwhelmingly sad, worried, scared, or hopeless
  • Experiencing extreme mood swings—alternating between euphoria and dejection
  • Behaving moody and withdrawn. They may stop communicating with you and prefer to be isolated. They may stop seeing their friends, or communicating with them via phone, text, or social media.
  • Losing interest in activities they once enjoyed. For instance, they may love music but suddenly stop going to music classes or show no inclination to practice their instrument.
  • Developing a fear of common things or being scared to try new things
  • Having difficulty coping with everyday activities and stressors
  • Being unable to relate to others or express their emotions
  • Changing their appearance drastically or neglecting their personal hygiene
  • Picking fights with friends, family members, teachers, or school authorities
  • Sleeping all the time or having trouble getting a full night’s sleep. They may often feel tired or low on energy.
  • Eating all the time or having no appetite. You may notice changes in their weight or eating habits.
  • Having unexplained physical ailments such as headaches, stomach aches, or other complaints
  • Having difficulty with learning, thinking, remembering, or concentrating
  • Performing poorly at school and having no interest in school work
  • Using substances such as alcohol, marijuana, or drugs
  • Engaging in risky, unsafe behaviors or causing trouble in their home, school, or community
  • Talking about death or suicide

If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How to Help Your Child

These are some steps you can take, if you suspect your child is struggling with a mental health condition.

Reach Out to Your Child

If your child is an adolescent or a teenager, talk to them and ask them how they’re feeling. If they’re acting out, put your anger or frustration with them aside and try to connect with them. Let them know that you’re there for them, in case they want to talk or need your support.

If your child is not open to talking, it can be helpful to connect with them in other ways, such as doing an activity with them. For instance, if you and your child enjoy fishing, painting, or baking together, that could be a way to bond with them, relieve stress, and help them express what they’re feeling.

Take Your Child to a Healthcare Provider

Take your child to a healthcare provider such as their pediatrician, family doctor, primary healthcare provider, or therapist. They can help screen your child for mental health conditions or refer you to a specialist who can. They can also help screen your child for suicide risk.

The healthcare provider will ask questions about your child's medical and family history, speak to your child, and perform tests or exams if required. It may be helpful to give your child some one-on-one time with the healthcare provider.

The healthcare provider will determine whether your child’s symptoms match the criteria listed for mental health conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The manual is a guiding document published by the American Psychiatric Association that lists behaviors, thoughts, and time periods that are indicative of mental health conditions.

If your child is diagnosed with a mental health condition, it’s important to get them the treatment they need. This could include therapy, lifestyle changes, social support, education, and in some cases, medication.

A Word From Verywell

The prospect of your child having a mental health condition can be scary and heartbreaking. However, it’s important to get them help as soon as possible. Remember, your child is not alone. Approximately 17% of children have a mental health condition—that's one in six children.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children's Mental Disorders.

  3. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

  4. Whitney DG, Peterson MD. US National and state-level prevalence of mental health disorders and disparities of mental health care use in childrenJAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(4):389–391. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.5399

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.