How to spot mental health concerns in children

Bend Health
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If you suspect that your child is struggling with their mental health, you’re far from alone.

COVID-19 challenged our youth in unprecedented ways, leading to a declaration of a mental health crisis as declared by the United States Surgeon General. But the truth is that children in the U.S. have been quietly suffering for far longer.

In the ten years leading up to the pandemic, feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness—as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors— increased by about 40% among young people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This crisis has left many parents and caregivers wondering how they can identify if their child is struggling with their mental health. You know how to spot an injury when they fall off their bike or how to check for a fever, but mental health concerns are not always as easy to detect.

That’s why it’s important to have a foundational understanding of the clinical terminology, symptoms, and disorders. This knowledge can better equip you to identify if your child is struggling with their mental health and seek out appropriate care or resources right away.

What is mental health?

Mental health is the overall wellness of how your child thinks, regulates their feelings, and behaves.

What are mental health disorders?

A mental health disorder is defined as patterns or changes in thinking, feeling, or behavior that cause distress or disrupt a person’s ability to function. Mental health disorders in children are generally defined as delays or disruptions in developing age-appropriate thinking, behaviors, social skills, or regulation of emotions. These struggles can affect how they function at home, in school, or in other social situations.

Signs of mental health struggles in children.

Here are some important signs and behaviors to look out for that may indicate your child is struggling with their mental health:

  • Persistent changes in behavior: Pay attention to significant and lasting changes in your child’s behavior, such as sudden mood swings, frequent crying, or being consistently withdrawn or irritable.
  • Difficulty socializing: Notice if your child is struggling to make friends, avoids social interactions, or frequently isolates themselves from others. They may show signs of shyness and anxiety or have difficulty joining group activities.
  • Changes in energy levels: Observe if your child displays excessive tiredness or restlessness on a regular basis. They might seem overly sluggish or hyperactive compared to their usual behavior.
  • Trouble concentrating: Keep an eye on your child’s ability to concentrate and complete tasks. If they consistently have trouble staying focused, following instructions, or show a decline in school performance, it could be a cause for concern.
  • Complaints of physical symptoms: Take note if a child frequently complains of physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, or other ailments, even when there is no apparent medical cause.
  • Excessive worry or fear: Be mindful if your child shows excessive worry, fear, or anxiety about everyday situations or upcoming events. They may have constant concerns or exhibit signs of being overly nervous or frightened.
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns: Pay attention to significant changes in your child’s eating or sleeping habits. This can include sudden weight loss or gain, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or noticeable changes in appetite.
  • Self-harming behaviors: Be alert to any signs of self-harm, such as intentionally hurting oneself, cutting, or engaging in other dangerous behaviors. Take these behaviors seriously and reach out to a mental health professional right away.
  • Difficulty coping with stress: Notice if your child is having a hard time coping with everyday stressors or if they become easily overwhelmed by minor challenges. They may exhibit extreme emotional reactions or have difficulty calming down.
  • Expressions of sadness or hopelessness: Keep an eye out for prolonged periods (two weeks or more) of sadness, frequent tearfulness, or expressions of hopelessness. These signs may indicate underlying feelings of depression that require attention.

Finding help and hope.

If you notice any of these signs and symptoms in your child it’s important to seek health from a mental health professional. Remember that every child is different, so note any changes of mood or behavior that you notice in your child and have open conversations surrounding mental health, emotions, and overall well-being as often as possible.

Start the conversation by creating a safe and open environment. Reassure them by saying, “Everyone has tough days, and it’s okay to ask for help.” Normalize their feelings by sharing your own experience, “I remember feeling anxious about school, and talking to someone really helped me.” Continue to support them by saying something like, “Getting help doesn’t mean something is wrong with you; it means you’re strong enough to take care of yourself.” Taking an empathetic approach can help your child feel understood and supported.

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