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How to recognise a mental health issue in your child

Mental illness in childrenChildren can develop many of the same mental health difficulties as adults, but sometimes they can manifest in different ways, making them harder to recognise.

If parents are unsure, there is no harm in having a conversation with their GP or school counsellor about any emotional, social or behavioural difficulties they think their child may be experiencing

Research shows that early intervention for child mental health problems can improve long-term outcomes for children and teenagers, so seeking professional help sooner rather than later is really important. Ignoring signs that may indicate a child is in need of help can result in the problem becoming more entrenched and much harder to treat.

Life is busy and full of distractions, but parents can make a difference to the mental health and wellbeing of their kids by finding ways to focus on and connect with them as part of everyday life. It can be as simple as taking the time to read them a book, eating a meal together or having a chat on the way to school.

Signs of possible mental health problems in children

Patterns of emotion or behaviour that are particularly intense, go on for more than a few weeks and affect a child’s ability to cope with everyday life at home, school or kinder may be a sign of a mental health problem.

Signs of a possible mental health problem in a younger child:

  • Sadness a lot of the time
  • Ongoing worries or fears
  • Obsessions or compulsive habits that interfere with everyday life
  • Ongoing problems getting along with other children or fitting in at school, kinder or child care
  • Aggressive or consistently disobedient behaviour, such as frequent yelling, kicking, hitting, biting or damaging things around them
  • Frequent physical complaints, such as headaches or tummy aches
  • Sleep problems, including nightmares.

Signs of a possible mental health problem in older children and teens:

  • Having trouble coping with everyday activities
  • Seeming down, feeling things are hopeless, being frequently tearful or lacking motivation
  • Having trouble eating or sleeping
  • Difficulties with attention, memory or concentration, a drop in school performance, or suddenly refusing to go to school
  • Avoiding friends or withdrawing from social contact
  • Complaints of frequent physical pain, such as headache, tummy ache or backache
  • Being aggressive or antisocial, for example, missing school, getting into trouble with the police, fighting or stealing
  • Losing weight or being very anxious about weight or physical appearance
  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol
  • Self-harming behaviours.

How parents can get help

The first step in seeking help for a problem is to recognise that the problem exists. It’s typically up to
the parents and carers in a child’s life to spot the issues and help children access the help they need.

If parents are not equipped with the knowledge and understanding to recognise mental health concerns in their child, the problems are more likely to become embedded and more difficult to treat.

  • Start by talking with their child about their concerns and helping them to access professional
  • Speak with their GP, who may help their child directly or refer them to another professional
  • Speak with their child’s school, kindergarten or child care centre for advice and support in getting appropriate help
  • Speak with a psychologist, counsellor or social worker
  • Parents with younger children can also speak with their child health nurse
  • Call a helpline for immediate support from a trained mental health professional, like beyondblue’s 24 hour service (1300 22 4636)
  • For other helpful online resources, visit the RCH Poll website.
  • If a child talks about suicide or is at immediate risk of harming themselves or others, parents and carers are advised to seek urgent medical attention by contacting their local emergency service or calling 000.

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