Signs of mental health problems in children
Children often have ups and downs that affect the way they feel and behave. But sometimes children don’t ‘bounce back’ from the downs, and this starts to affect other parts of their lives. This can be a sign that children are having mental health problems.
Below are signs of mental health problems. If you notice any of these signs in your child, and the signs go on for more than a few weeks, it’s important to talk with your child and then get professional help.
Emotional and behaviour signs
- doesn’t seem to enjoy things the way they used to
- has repeated tantrums or consistently behaves in a defiant or aggressive way
- seems sad or unhappy, or cries a lot
- is afraid or worried a lot
- gets very upset about being separated from you, or avoids social situations
- starts behaving in ways that they’ve outgrown, like sucking their thumb or wetting the bed
- has trouble paying attention, can’t sit still or is restless.
- isn’t sleeping well or oversleeps
- has difficulty getting out of bed
- has trouble eating or overeats
- has lost or gained a lot of weight
- has physical pain that doesn’t have a clear medical cause – for example, headaches, stomach aches, nausea or other physical pains.
School and social signs
If your child is at school, you might also notice your child:
- isn’t doing as well as usual at school
- is having problems fitting in at school or getting along with other children
- doesn’t want to go to school
- isn’t doing what their teacher asks
- has withdrawn from their friends
- doesn’t want to go to social events like birthday parties or usual activities like sport.
Good mental health helps your child develop socially, emotionally, cognitively and physically. You can support your child’s mental health with positive relationships, behaviour support, a healthy lifestyle and more.
Talking with children about mental health problems
If you notice a sudden change in your child’s mood or behaviour, encourage your child to talk with you about their feelings, and really listen to what they’re saying. Listening and showing that you care can comfort your child if something is bothering them. And this might be all the help they need.
If you’re not sure how to talk with your child about mental health issues, here are ideas that might help:
- Tell your child that you’ve noticed they seem sad and you want to help. Your child is more likely to talk openly with you about their feelings if you’re accepting and don’t judge or over-react to what they tell you.
- Tell your child that it’s not unusual for children and adults to feel worried, stressed or sad sometimes.
- Tell your child that opening up about personal thoughts and feelings can be scary, but talking about a problem with an adult they trust might help.
- Let your child know that you care for them and you’re ready to listen whenever your child wants to talk.
- Ask your child what they think might help them feel better. This can help you give or get your child the right support.
If you can, it’s important to work out the cause of your child’s low mood. Is it a speciﬁc, temporary situation, or is it a more serious, continuing problem?
This can help you decide how best to help your child. For example, if your child is disappointed about not being invited to a birthday party, you might show empathy by listening to your child’s thoughts and feelings. But if your child is experiencing a serious and lasting problem like bullying, you need to work with your child’s teachers to sort it out.
Poor mental health is no-one’s fault, and no-one is to blame.
Getting help for children’s mental health problems
It’s important to get professional help as soon as possible if the changes in your child’s mood or behaviour:
- last for more than a few weeks
- are distressing your child
- are affecting their relationships with family and friends
- are affecting your child’s ability to do everyday activities and enjoy life.
There are various professional support options, including:
- your child’s teacher at preschool or school, or a school counsellor
- your child’s GP or paediatrician
- a psychologist who is trained to work with children and families
- a mental health social worker
- your local children’s health or community health centre
- your local mental health service.
If your child is aged 5 years or older, they can also talk with a Kids Helpline counsellor by calling 1800 551 800 or using the Kids Helpline email counselling service or the Kids Helpline web counselling service.
If you don’t know where to find the most appropriate services for your family, your GP is a good place to start.
It’s important to get support for yourself at the same time as supporting your child with their mental health problems. This is especially important if you’re parenting with a mental health condition. You can find support options on our mental health links and resources page. You can also call a parenting helpline.
Childhood mental health disorders
If your child’s mental health problems are interfering significantly with their life, a qualified professional like a clinical psychologist might diagnose a mental health disorder.
Childhood mental health problems are usually grouped into:
- conditions like depression and anxiety disorders
- conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder.
You can read more about how to recognise childhood mental health problems and disorders and seek help in the following articles:
- Depression in children: 5-8 years
- Generalised anxiety in children
- Phobias, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress in children
- Separation anxiety in babies and children
- Social anxiety in children
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): children and teenagers
- Conduct disorder in children and teenagers
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in children and teenagers
- Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD): children 5-12 years