As a parent, it can be difficult to know if your child is struggling with their mental health or emotions. Children often don’t have the language or self-awareness to articulate when they’re not feeling like themselves. However, there are some common signs that may indicate your child is having a hard time emotionally or psychologically.
Changes in mood
Look out for dramatic shifts in your child’s mood or temperament. Children will naturally experience ups and downs, but pervasive irritability, anger, sadness, or anxiety that persists for weeks and is out of character for them may signify an emotional struggle. Mood swings that seem to occur for no reason are also worth paying attention to.
Withdrawal from usual activities
Take note if your formerly outgoing child starts withdrawing from social and extracurricular activities they used to enjoy. Losing interest in hobbies, sports, and socializing with friends may indicate depression or anxiety. Kids who used to love school but now try to avoid it at all costs may be struggling with learning challenges, bullying, or mental health issues.
Declining academic performance
Sudden dips in grades or performance at school can stem from emotional turmoil. The reasons could range from attention and learning difficulties to bullying, stress, or depression. Reach out to your child’s teacher if you notice a downward trend.
Headaches, stomachaches, and other physical symptoms with no clear medical cause may be manifestations of anxiety or stress. If your child is missing school or activities due to unexplained ailments, anxiety may be at the root.
Watch for major changes in your child’s sleep patterns like difficulty falling asleep, refusing to sleep alone, frequent nightmares or night terrors. These can all indicate that your child is feeling anxious or depressed.
A loss of appetite or sudden increase in eating and weight gain/loss can correlate with emotional struggles. This is especially true if you notice patterns like excessive snacking when bored or never eating lunch at school.
Visible cuts, burns, or scars from self-inflicted injuries are a serious sign your child needs help. However, note that self-harm can also be non-physical, like intentionally making oneself sick or pulling out hair compulsively.
Drug or alcohol use
In the teen years especially, turning to substance use and abuse may be a way to cope with depression, anxiety, or trauma. Listen compassionately if your child opens up about this, and seek professional counseling.
Expressions of hopelessness
Does your child make statements like “I hate my life” or “The world would be better off without me”? These types of sentiments require attention. Ask them why they feel this way and if they have thought about suicide.
Frequent angry outbursts, screaming, temper tantrums, or rages in younger children can indicate an emotional imbalance. The child may be unable to handle frustration, disappointments, or transitions.
Younger children who become excessively clingy, have separation anxiety, or fear being left alone may be struggling with insecurity and attachment issues. Reassure them and spend more quality time together.
A tendency to be excessively neat, meticulous, and hard on themselves can be distressing. Let perfectionistic kids know you value effort and progress, not outcome.
Sometimes teens engage in dangerous or illegal acts like vandalism, violence, reckless driving, or unprotected sex to self-medicate emotional turmoil or chase an adrenaline rush. Don’t just punish – find out the roots.
A child who stops bathing, brushing their teeth, or doing other hygiene care may be struggling with depression. Gently try to help them reestablish simple routines.
Kids spending excessive time gaming, scrolling social media, or viewing questionable content may be trying to escape reality and self-soothe. Monitor use and encourage real-world interactions.
How to talk to your child
If you notice potential red flags, here are some tips for discussing it with your child:
- Pick a relaxed time when you can speak privately without interruptions or distractions.
- Listen without judgement and validate their feelings – don’t just dismiss concerns.
- Ask open-ended questions like “What seems to be bothering you lately?”
- If they disclose self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or safety risks, get professional help immediately.
- Assure them you are on their side and you’ll get through challenges together.
- Suggest involving other trusted adults like a counselor, coach, or doctor.
- Explore options like therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, or a new academic setting.
- Once you’ve started the conversation, keep checking in regularly.
If you remain concerned after speaking to your child, consult a mental health professional like a psychologist, licensed therapist, or counselor. They can formally evaluate your child for conditions like anxiety, depression, ADHD, learning disabilities, OCD, trauma, bipolar disorder, and more. Early intervention is key.
If your child’s issues are severe – like refusing school, active suicidal ideation, or psychosis – temporary inpatient psychiatric hospitalization may be required to stabilize acute symptoms before transitioning to outpatient treatment. This structured environment can be lifesaving.
A child psychiatrist may recommend medication to help treat diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD, and schizophrenia. Note that medication should be combined with counseling for maximum benefit.
One-on-one counseling with a licensed mental health professional provides a safe, judgement-free space for kids to process emotions. Therapists train kids in managing stress, regulating emotions, cognitive restructuring, and more.
For issues like trauma, grief, or eating disorders, group counseling allows kids to feel less alone by sharing struggles with peers going through similar experiences.
Family therapy helps identify unhealthy patterns and improves communication and closeness between family members. It empowers the whole family unit to support the child’s healing journey.
Ask your child’s school about developing an IEP (Individualized Education Program) or a 504 Plan detailing accommodations and modifications to assist a child with learning or behavioral challenges.
Caring for physical health with nutrition, exercise, sleep hygiene, and routine medical care helps manage mental health. Limiting screen time and building in fun activities reduces stress too.
Teach children useful self-care skills like deep breathing, guided imagery, yoga, art and music therapy, journaling, and mindful meditation. Positive coping tools boost resilience.
Watch for recurrence
Mental health issues may recur or require ongoing management even after treatment. Stay vigilant for signs of backsliding, and don’t hesitate to return to counseling or medication if needed.
Be patient and validating
Improving mental health takes time and commitment. Let your child know you’ll stick by them through the ups and downs. Validate their feelings by saying things like “That sounds really tough. I’m so glad you told me.”
Childhood mental health issues are common but treatable with compassion, professional help, and family support. If you think your child is struggling emotionally, open up the conversation, seek an evaluation, and work with experts to get them the assistance they need to feel healthy, secure, and back to being themselves again.