Through their stages of development, children will experience a variety of moods that affect the way they behave. And while it is natural for moods to fluctuate from time to time, how can you tell if a change in mood or behavior is normal or if this is a more serious sign that your child is struggling with their mental health?
Defining Mental Health
First, it is important to understand what is mental health? Mental health is our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel and act. Everyone has it – children, adolescents and adults – and it can range from mild to moderate to severe. Some people never experience poor mental health, while others may go through phases or struggle long-term.
While many adolescents experience positive mental health, if you believe your child is in distress know they are not alone. U.S. Health and Human Services’ Office of Population Affairs estimates “49.5 percent of adolescents has had a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.” Examples include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders and learning disabilities.
What to look out for?
So, how can you tell if your child is in distress? If you see a change in mood or behavior that lasts two weeks or more and disrupts regular functioning, it could be a sign your child is struggling with their mental health. Signs to look out for include:
- Drop in school performance
- Appetite changes
- Persistent sadness
- Frequent headaches or stomachaches
- Withdrawing from or avoiding social interactions
- Afraid or worried
- Difficulty concentrating
- Missing school
- Frequent outbursts of anger
- Self-harm or discussing self-harm
Untreated mental health problems can disrupt children’s functioning at home, school and in the community, leading to serious problems later in life. Early identification and intervention are critical to understanding and addressing symptoms to help your child live a healthier and happier life.
Ways you can support your child’s mental health:
Talk About Mental Health
Conversations about mental health can be uncomfortable but they are important to supporting overall well-being because physical and mental health are closely related. To overcome this discomfort, talk openly about mental health like you would about any other medical problems such as allergies, asthma and diabetes. Having these positive conversations early and often will reduce the stigma around mental health and will help your child see you as a trusted resource if they experience distress.
If you suspect your child is struggling, express your concerns in a calm and reassuring manner. Encourage your child to talk about how they feel and listen with empathy. Be reassuring and help them understand mental health conditions are common for adults and children.
You know your child best so if you suspect they are going through something serious, do not hesitate to ask for help. Schedule an appointment with your child’s pediatrician and be ready to describe the behaviors that concern you. Your child’s pediatrician can help you differentiate “normal” development from something more serious and if needed, can connect you with a skilled mental health professional.
As a parent, you play an important role in supporting your child’s treatment plan. You can help them by learning as much as you can about their condition, creating an environment where they feel supported and safe and providing positive feedback and encouragement. It is also important to remember kids learn by watching you so set a good example and model habits such as staying positive, taking care of your physical health, developing healthy coping skills and talking to someone if needed.
Parents and caregivers are often the first to see signs that their child is struggling with mental health. Recognizing the signs and getting help early are critical as this can prevent problems from becoming more serious. If you are concerned your child may have a problem, do not hesitate to speak with their pediatrician.