Childhood can be a challenging time, and the pressures of growing up can sometimes lead to the development of a mental health issue. Research shows that approximately 12% of young people have a diagnosable mental health problem, such as:
- an anxiety disorder
- anorexia, bulimia or other eating disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
Figures published by Public Health England suggest that a further 48% of looked-after children suffer from some form of emotional or mental health issue. Many childhood mental health issues can be treated, but early intervention is key. Untreated mental health issues can have an impact on your child’s development, your home life, and your child’s overall mental wellbeing.
There is some suggestion that childhood mental health issues may continue into adulthood, and increase your child’s risk of developing a serious mental health disorder later in life.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to spot the signs of a mental health issue, particularly in children and young adults aged five to 15.
Conditions like depression and anxiety disorder can present with symptoms that are easily confused with normal childhood behaviour. This can include sleeping too much, throwing frequent tantrums, or struggling at school. It can be easy to overlook potential red flags, or assume that you are worrying about normal developments in your child’s behaviour.
Children may experience more than one mental health disorder at a time, so symptoms may seem inconsistent or contradictory. According to research published by Bupa, a UK-based private health provider, 40% of parents struggle to spot the early signs of mental illness.
In this article, you’ll find information to help you identify the symptoms of common mental health issues, guidance on how to talk about mental health issues, how to tackle problems in a constructive way, advice on when to see a doctor, and how to address mental health problems with a child.
Spotting signs of a mental health issue
It can be difficult to spot mental health issues in children. The symptoms associated with conditions like depression, anxiety or OCD can be hard to distinguish from normal childhood behaviours, and children often struggle to talk about mental health - even if they feel comfortable talking about most other aspects of their life.
This can make it tough to spot the early warning signs of a mental health issue. It might be worth contacting a health professional or talking with your child if you notice new and troubling behaviours that:
- last for more than a week
- interfere with your child’s daily life
- interfere with your life at home
Common signs of a mental health issue can include:
- persistent feelings of sadness or low mood
- sleeping too much or too little, or feeling sleepy during the day
- being irritable or grumpy all the time
- spending more time alone, or avoiding social activities with friends
- talking about fears and worries more than usual
- periods of unusually high energy and activity (mania)
- struggling to sit still and concentrate
- constant anxiety
- frequent temper tantrums
- persistent nightmares
- repeated refusal to go to school and/or participate in regular activities
- a sudden decline in academic performance
- argumentative or aggressive behaviour
- changes to eating patterns, including expressing less interest in food or low appetite
In adolescents, you should also look for signs of:
- risky or destructive behavior, alone or with friends
- fear of weight gain, excessive dieting or exercise
- self-harming behaviours, such as cutting or burning skin
- alcohol or drug abuse
- delusional thinking, for example, expressing fears that someone is controlling their thoughts or claiming they can hear things that no one else can hear
Note: Serious mental health issues require expert help. If your child displays dangerous behaviours, expresses suicidal tendencies or says they want to harm themselves, always seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Above all, trust your instincts and look for subtle indications that something is not right. If you are worried about your child’s behaviour or think they might be suffering from a mental health issue, consider talking to a doctor about your concerns. They will be able to help you make a diagnosis or refer you to a specialist who can evaluate your child’s condition.
Depending on where you are located, this could be a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a social worker, a psychiatric nurse, a mental health counselor or a behavioral therapist.
You may also find it helpful to:
- keep an eye on your child and note any further changes in their behaviour
- talk to your child to develop a better understanding of what they are going through
- encourage your child to look after themselves by exercising, eating and sleeping well
Common risk factors for childhood mental issues
It can be impossible to determine the underlying cause of a mental health issue like anxiety or depression, but there are common factors which may increase the risk of these conditions. These include:
- a family history of mental illness
- having parents who separate or divorce
- experiencing the death of someone close to them
- experiencing severe bullying or sexual abuse
- living in poverty or being homeless
- experiencing discrimination based on their race, sexuality or religion
- suffering from a long-term physical illness
Experiencing one or more of these risk factors doesn't mean that your child will develop a mental health issue, but it makes some form of emotional disturbance more likely. If your child has struggled with one of the above issues, pay attention to their behaviour and monitor them for signs of a mental health issue.
Talking about mental health issues: Some helpful tips
It can be difficult to talk about mental health issues, especially if you have a young child or a child who is already experiencing difficulties. You may find that you:
- do not know how to broach the subject of mental health with your child
- struggle to find the right words or worry about saying something ‘wrong’
- worry about upsetting your child
- worry about being asked a question that you don’t know the answer to
All these feelings are normal, and conversations about mental health can be challenging for any parent. But talking about mental health is a vital part of helping your child to process and cope with their situation.
You can start by indicating that you want to talk to your child about something important to minimise distractions and ensure they are in the right frame of mind. From there, talk openly and honestly about your child’s emotional well-being. Give them your full attention and make it clear you are listening to everything they say.
Asking open-ended questions like ‘how are you feeling’ is generally more productive than explaining that you’re already worried about their emotional state - remember that you’re there to listen more than speak.
It also helps to validate your child’s emotions whenever possible. It can be tempting to explain that the things they worry about do not matter in the long-term, but your child needs to feel heard, as their emotions will be very real to them.
Try to create a two-way conversation and encourage emotional honesty. It may help to open up to your child about some of your own (unrelated) worries to show them that it is normal to feel scared sometimes, and to demonstrate that they don’t need to be afraid of the stigma around mental health conditions.
If you would like more information on talking to children about mental health issues, or you feel that you could benefit from more thorough guidance on the topic of mental health, you will find some useful resources in the section below. Mental health support groups can be helpful. Alternatively, read more about talking to your child about their feelings.
If you are worried that your child might be struggling with a mental health issue, the following organisations may be of interest:
Family Lives - A charitable organisation that specialises in parenting and family support, including non-judgemental support for parents who are struggling with their child’s mental health problems
Childline - A free counselling service that can help young children to cope with mental health issues
YoungMinds - A charity that offers free resources and support for childhood mental illnesses
Papyrus - A charity that provides guidance and support to help prevent young suicide
Mind - A charity offering help and support for people struggling with mental illness
Mental Health Foundation - A charity dedicated to preventing mental illness
Child Mind Institute - An organisation that provides advice and resources to help children cope with a range of mental health issues
Kids Mental Health - An information portal designed to help you find mental health resources; advice and support
Children’s Mental Health Network - A site designed to help you find mental health support and/or advice relating to a range of issues
Anxiety and Depression Association of America - An organisation offering support and advice on all aspects of anxiety and depression
Nummer gegen Kummer - A specialist counselling service for children, adolescents, and parents
Schon mal an selbsthilfegruppen - A website that lists support groups, including support groups for childhood mental illness
Fil Santé Jeunes - A youth support service that offers specialist advice for mental health
PHARE - An organisation that specialises in suicide prevention for young people and support to the parents of young people with a mental health problem
PsyJeunes - An organisation that provides resources and support for young people with mental health issues
Indian Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health - An organisation that offers support and advice for all aspects of childhood mental health
Headspace - A national organisation that offers hands-on help and support for children with a mental health issue
Be You - An organisation that offers support and advice to families struggling with mental illness
The Shaw Mind Foundation - A specialist charity that offers support for struggling families, and resources to help with childhood mental illness.