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Signs of problems and disorders

Recognizing the signs of mental health problems in children and teens

All children may experience problems with their mood or behavior from time to time. In some cases, these problems may be a normal part of a child's stage of development. In other cases, behavioral or emotional problems may be understandable reactions to a change in a child's environment or routines, such as sadness after the divorce of parents or the death of someone close to them.

When a child's problems persist over a long period of time or begin to interfere with relationships, performance at school or everyday living, these may be signs of a mental health disorder. Many people are surprised to learn that mental health problems are relatively common among young people – in fact, they are as common as a fractured limb. 

What are the signs or symptoms that your child/teen might have a mental health disorder?

The path to improved health often begins with a family's awareness of concerning behaviors, which may include:

  • Overactivity or difficulty paying attention
  • Anxiety, worry or fear
  • Sadness and depression
  • Problems with food or body image
  • Extreme anger, aggression or defiance
  • Tendency to use drugs or alcohol
  • Unusual thoughts or experiences

What “causes” mental health issues or behavioral problems?

Mental health issues can happen in children due to a number of different factors. Experiencing trauma, such as the death of a close friend or family member, sudden life changes, experiencing violence, or other incidents may cause a child to feel anxious or depressed.

Additionally, we know there is a genetic link to many mental health issues and some children and adolescents may have an increased likelihood of experiencing challenges such as depression or anxiety due to genetic factors. We know that 1 in 5 children will experience a serious mental health challenge it is not uncommon for children to experience these behaviors throughout their development.

Do mental health problems run in families?

There can be a genetic link to some mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety and developmental diagnoses such as ADHD or Autism.

How many children and teens suffer from mental health issues?

1 in 5 children will experience a serious mental health issue during their childhood. Additionally, 75% of mental illnesses may appear before the age of 14. It is very likely that someone close to you (family or friend) has experienced challenges with their mental health.

How do you help your child who is displaying signs of having a mental disorder?

It is important to let children know that they are loved and that someone cares about them. Experiencing these feelings can be scary and hard to talk about. As a parent or guardian, one of the best things you can do is listen to their fears and concerns and reach out to professionals who can support the child’s journey.

Often talking with a counselor at school or in the community may be a good starting point. If you are confused about where to go for resources, you can also reach out to your primary care provider or to our mental health resource center (CMHRC) for ideas about which providers can help or other support in your area.

Do children “outgrow” mental health issues? How do I know it’s not just a phase?

Some children may experience depression or anxiety as the direct result of a trauma, such as the loss of a loved one or a sudden change in their environment. Many children are resilient and will respond positively to support and interventions.

Some children and adolescents may struggle with mental health challenges throughout their development and even into adulthood. 75-90% of individuals who receive help respond positively to intervention and make progress.

Is my teenager is just being “moody” or do they have a mental health issue?

One of the main things to look for is abrupt changes in behavior, particularly in isolating themselves from friends or close family members. If the teen has significantly changed their habits with eating, school, or other previously preferred activities it may be time to have a conversation with them or to reach out to a professional for assistance for a mental health evaluation.


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