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Detecting Signs of Mental Health Issues in Children

Updated on December 16, 2017
Carola Finch profile image

Carola writes about mental illness, disabilities, and social issues. She manages a news website about disabilities.


As a mental illness advocate and writer, I have observed that mental health conditions are very difficult to discern in children, but an early diagnosis can ensure that mentally ill children can get the treatment they need. There are some warning signs that parents need to know and look for in their kids.

These indicators reveal the possibility of the development a mental illness, which some mental health professionals also refer to as "emotional disturbance" or "emotional disorders."

The signs of mental illness are different for children than for adults, says Dr. Elizabeth Waterman, a clinical psychologist. For example, the symptoms of depression in children are often bouts of crying and irritability.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NAMI), slightly more than 20 percent – roughly one in five children – will currently or at some time in their life experience a serious mental illness. In spite of this, There are a number of barriers prevent parents from seeing their child’s behavior as symptoms of a mental health problem.

A Canadian survey of parents conducted by "Today’s Parent" magazine and RBC found that mental illness-related concerns were the number one reason that parents consulted their pediatricians, yet 43 percent of parents said that they did not have concerns about the mental health of their children. Some parents may be in denial about their children’s condition because they fear the stigma attached to mental illness.

Parents may also experience difficulty in telling the difference between symptoms and normal child behavior, especially during times of stress. Marshall Korenblum, the chief psychiatrist of the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for Children and Families, Toronto, says that the early diagnosis of mental illness is critical. The improper wiring of the brain that causes mental illness will cause the pathways of the brain to become more entrenched as time goes on and will become more difficult to treat.

Here is a list of some of the most common types of mental illness in children.

Type of Mental Illness
Anxiety Disorders
persistent anxiety and compulsive coping behaviors that interfere with the activities of daily living.
generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, social phobias
Mood Disorders
extreme mood swings from depression to elation or experiencing depression for more than two weeks
depression, bipolar disorder
Disruptive Disorders / Behavioral Disorders
difficulty focusing, not following rules, a defiant attitude towards authority figures
Eating Disorders
loss of appetite, obsession with weight, unexplained weight loss, self-induced vomiting, large consumption of laxatives
bullimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder

Contributing factors to mental illness

  • A family history of mental illness that may predispose children to developing a mental health disorder
  • Exposure to psychological trauma such as neglect, verbal, physical or sexual abuse, stressful events, or a major loss such as a parent’s death

Physical signs

  • Unexplained physical symptoms in young children such as fatigue, tummy aches, or headaches
  • Changes in eating habits - taking laxatives, binging and purging, or unexplained weight loss
  • changes in sleep patterns, not enough or too much
  • An inability to deal with the activities of daily living, such as getting out of bed in the morning, functioning at school or dealing with their families
  • hyperactivity that interferes wth their concentration


Emotional signs

  • Preschoolers experiencing separation anxiety when they were previously OK with separation from their parents, or regression to bedwetting after being toilet-trained
  • Severe mood swings from depression and withdrawal to the other end of the spectrum for at least two weeks, causing problems in relationships with their families, peers and in school
  • Emotional extremes such as excessive worrying, nervousness, and sadness
  • Overwhelming feelings of irrational fear and anxiety that seem to be without foundation such as worrying, or a fear of injury or being alone, sometimes manifesting physcially as fast breathing or a racing heart
  • lack of interest in relationships or activities, not wanting to go to school
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless, worthless and sad
  • A preoccupation with suicide and/or suicide attempts

Behavioral signs

  • Difficulties in establishing and maintaining relationships with others, withdrawal from social interaction
  • Excessive aggression against others, angry outbursts, expressing a desire to harm others
  • Loss of interest in school, friendships and family activities that they previously enjoyed
  • Disruptive behavior in school such as not following rules or skipping class
  • Defying authority figures and breaking the rules such as stealing or damaging property
  • Out-of-control and dangerous behavior such as using weapons or fighting
  • Self-harming behavior such as cutting
  • Alcohol or drug abuse


Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The condition does not fully surface in young people until they are in their teens or their early 20s. Childhood schizophrenia itself is rare, but some signs of the future onset of schizophrenia may occur during adolescence or the teen years such as:

  • Hearing voices
  • Delusions, i.e. seeing things or talking to people that are not there
  • Difficulty in recognizing the difference between reality and fantasy
  • Paranoia.

What parents can do

Some parents assume that their children will come to them if they are struggling with mental health issues, but a 2012 RBC poll shows that many children turn to friends or a health professional rather than their mother or father.

When parents suspect that their child may have a mental health condition, they should talk to others who can provide insight into their child’s condition such as family members, close friends, teachers or other caregivers.

The parents can then discuss their concerns with the child’s doctor or pediatrician.

Parents need to educate themselves about mental illness, so that they can recognize the symptoms and be able to cope if their child does have a condition. Support groups and mental health organizations are also excellent sources of information and help.

Many doctors do not have the specialized training needed to diagnose mental illness in children, but can provide referrals to specialists in the area of concern. It may take some time and several consultations to get a firm diagnosis and establish the right therapy and/or treatment options. In the end, children benefit greatly from early intervention and treatment.

Concluding Thoughts

There is are treatment options available for children with mental health disorders. There is hope that they can get better and learn to manage their symptoms.


The Center for Parent Information and Resources has fact sheets on mental health and emotional disorders.

National Alliance on Mental Illness has resources on their website.

The National Institute of Mental Health has information on mental health disorders.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has mental health information on their website.

© 2013 Carola Finch


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