11 signs your child may have a mental health issue and how to help

If your kid is struggling in school, it might be a sign of a mental health issue. Paco Navarro/Getty Images
  • Amy Morin is a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, mental strength coach, and international bestselling author.
  • Mental health issues are more common in children that most people realise: An estimated one in six US children struggle with disorders like anxiety, depression, or ADHD.
  • Morin says that if your child has lost interest in their favourite hobbies, is lashing out or being irritable, or is having problems in school, there might be a deeper illness at play.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

It’s estimated that one in six children in the United States has a mental illness. Yet over half of them never receive treatment.

Amy morin psychotherapist
Amy Morin. Courtesy of Amy Morin

Sometimes the symptoms of mental health problems go unnoticed in children. This is in part because psychological issues in children can look a little different than they do in adults.

Early intervention can be key to helping kids feel better faster, however. So it’s important to be on the lookout for potential red flags that could indicate your child has a mental health issue. Here are 11 signs to watch out for:

1. You’ve seen some unexplained changes in mood that concern you.

It’s normal for kids to be a little sad or grumpy sometimes. But if you see changes in mood that last for two weeks or more, it could be a sign they need a little help regulating their emotions.

2. They have stopped doing things they enjoy.

Kids often abandon certain activities – like soccer or piano. But they should always have some activities they enjoy. If your child lacks interest in just about everything, it could be a sign of a mood disorder.

3. Their anger is causing problems.

While adults with depression often look sad, children are likely to appear irritable. Anxiety disorders and other mental health issues can also lead to angry outbursts. Lashing out, getting aggressive, and throwing out-of-control tantrums are just a few examples of anger issues that may require attention.

4. Their anxiety stops them from doing healthy activities.

Whether your child worries about landing a part in the school play, or they’re nervous about presenting a science fair project to the whole class, a little anxiety can be healthy. But if your child refuses to do things that could be good for them – like going to a friend’s home or trying out for a team – it could be a sign they need help managing their anxiety.

5. They have a lot of unexplained aches and pains.

Kids with mental health issues often complain about stomach aches, headaches, and a variety of physical ailments. If a physician can’t find any known medical cause for these complaints, their discomfort could be stemming from emotional distress.

6. They are having trouble sleeping.

All kids have trouble sleeping sometimes. But ongoing sleep concerns might be a cause for concern. For example, trauma can lead to nightmares, and anxiety could be making it difficult to fall asleep.

7. They’re exhibiting some strange behaviours.

From obsessive counting to hoarding scraps of paper, don’t ignore strange behaviours. They could be signs of disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder or autism.

8. Their behaviours don’t respond to your discipline strategies.

Positive consequences (like praise and rewards) should encourage good behaviour. Negative consequences (like time out or the loss of privileges) should discourage misbehavior. If your child doesn’t seem to respond to healthy discipline, it could be a sign of a behaviour disorder like ADHD.

9. They’re having problems in school.

From refusal to go to school to declining grades, academic problems may spring up when a child is struggling with a mental health issue. Keep an eye out for new or worsening school-related problems.

10. They’re experiencing social problems.

It’s normal for kids to go through rough patches with their friends or to feel left out sometimes. But if your child can’t make or keep friends, picks on other kids, only gets along with younger children, or seems overly susceptible to peer pressure, a professional assessment may be in order.

11. You see unexplained changes in their weight.

All kids’ weight fluctuates a bit as they grow. But unexpected weight changes could signal anything from an eating disorder to depression. If your child loses interest in food, develops strange eating habits, or seems to be overeating due to stress, it could be a sign of psychological turmoil.

How to get help

If you see any of these signs – or have other concerns about your child’s psychological well-being – seek professional help.

A good place to start is by talking to your child’s doctor. If the physician thinks your child could benefit from therapy, they can help you find someone able to give your child a psychological assessment.

Especially if your child is asking to see a therapist, take them to an appointment.

Don’t pry too much about what they might want to talk about. Their request to see a therapist doesn’t mean they don’t trust you enough to talk about their problems. Instead, it’s a sign that they have confidence you’ll get them assistance when they need help.