Parenting is one of the toughest jobs in the world. Raising children is both time-consuming and emotionally complex, with both the physical and emotional well-being of each child just as important as your own.
For parents, that means plenty of stress over everything from what to feed your kids to whether or not you’re paying attention to the right things. That can mean making judgement calls on pain and illness, but it can also mean trying to stay in tune with the mental health of children as they get older over time.
The Child Mind Institute estimates that as many as 1 in every 10 children experience some kind of mental disorder. From learning disabilities like ADHD and dyslexia to bio-chemical disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, there are an almost staggering array of problems that could arise as a child learns and grows. Add in the potential behavioral disorders and social engagement disorders that a child may possess, which can make it difficult to interact with peers or thrive in school, and it’s a scary thing for parents to think about.
While every child is different, though, there are a number of warning signs that can help a parent spot when something is amiss. And by keeping an eye out for key patterns, parents can help their children always receive the attention they need—no matter what is going on.
These are six of the most easy to identify signs that a child is struggling with a mental health concern. By always remaining diligent in spotting behaviors like these, parents can identify when something is amiss much faster—and as a result, get the help from medical professionals that a child may need much sooner.
1. Difficulty Making Friends
One of the easiest ways to identify that a child may need a little bit of extra help understanding their own mind is to keep an eye out for friends—or, more importantly, a lack of friends.
Starting at a very young age, children who have difficulty relating to their peers may be battling with a number of disorders, including anxiety, social panic disorder, or autism. There is a line between being shy and having trouble relating—and if your child is unable to relate to their peers despite the wide variety of personalities out there, they may be battling bigger obstacles inside their own minds.
Usually, if a child is on the autism spectrum, their behavior will begin to manifest at an early age; you’ll notice in how they interact with you and how they handle changes in their environment possibly long before they ever reach school age. The Global Autism Project explains that not every case is the same, though—and with so many different behaviors that could be a sign of the need for a little extra help in social situations, it’s important to keep an eye out and support your child if they ever struggle relating to others.
2. Losing Interest in Activities
Every child experiences an evolution of their interests over time, so it can be tough for parents to identify when something is truly wrong.
There is a difference, though, between changing interests and losing interest altogether.
Seattle Children’s Hospital explains that depression manifests itself in a similar way in children and teens to in adults. Loss of weight, becoming withdrawn, and losing interest in activities—especially if the child doesn’t replace those interests with new, age-appropriate ones—are huge warning signs.
Sometimes, a child loses interest in things that they loved because they aren’t getting enough sleep; exhaustion in children can trigger depression, which can be a huge cause of concern for loving parents. If you’re making sure that your child is getting enough sleep and they’re still seeming disinterested in things—or on the other end of the spectrum, they seem to only want to sleep—it might be time to talk to their doctor.
3. Exhibiting Signs of Aggression
Think about how your child’s behavior can be described.
Every child, both young and old, will get angry—especially as they learn to control their emotions. All toddlers will throw tantrums, all teenagers will get upset at perceived injustices, and all children of any age will be upset when they can’t do something they enjoy.
Certain types of aggravation or aggression can be signs of mental disorders, though. For example, the Child Mind Institute explains that a bipolar child, “in their manic stages, very frequently become aggressive. They lose self-control, they become impulsive.” Children who have schizophrenia will often become upset when internal stimuli starts to aggravate them, and children with social disorders—particularly autism—can become incredibly aggravated when things don’t go their way.
The most important thing is to keep track of how long the aggravation or aggression lasts. If it immediately follows a stressful event, it may simply be a reaction—but if this is a prolonged behavior or follows a concerning cycle, it’s probably time to let your child’s doctor know.
4. Struggling with School Performance
There are a broad range of problems that a parent can spot just by keeping tabs on a child’s academic performance.
Difficulty reading or progressing with lessons can be a sign of dyslexia or developmental delays, while not every child with up-and-down school performances is simply suffering from bouts of laziness; they may actually be suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well.
Misinformation about how disorders like ADHD, anxiety, and autism manifest can leave parents overlooking the problem for years under the assumption that a child simply isn’t trying. If your child seems upset about school, or seems angry about school, take a deeper look—there could be a crucial problem waiting to be uncovered by your child’s doctor.
It’s also important to understand that not every child will display symptoms in the same way. If your child has ADHD, they may not just be hyper; they may only show signs in how they perform in school. If your child starts all of their assignments enthusiastically but never seems to finish them, struggles to get through their homework without getting up, or does well on tests while forgetting to do the daily work, it may be time to get some testing done.
5. Alcohol or Drug Abuse
Chances are, you won’t notice this kind of warning sign until your child has entered their teen years. And it can be difficult for parents to spot the difference between a teen trying to rebel and a teen trying to mask mental health problems.
Context is key. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as many as 60 percent of all teens will have tried alcohol by the time they’re 18-years old. But if your child seems to be using alcohol or drugs on a routine or daily basis, especially if they seem unable to make friends or seem uninterested in socializing without it, they may be using it as a coping mechanism.
Alcohol can be used as a mask for everything from social anxiety disorder to schizophrenia, or as a way to dull the pain caused by something like depression or bipolar disorder. And while it may seem like an effective form of “treatment,” it only masks symptoms; it doesn’t actually treat the problem. The risk of addiction in teens at the hands of a mental health problem makes it paramount that parents keep an eye out for this—and rather than punishing your teen, try to get them the help they truly need.
6. Getting Anxious Over Little Things
It’s perfectly normal for a child or teen to get anxious about major milestones and life events. Joining a new school can be daunting, as can making new friends, presenting a school project, or competing in a big sporting event.
If your child is getting anxious about little things, especially if they’ve shown no history of behavior or performance that support the anxiety, they may want to talk to a counselor or health professional. If your child is constantly getting anxious that they’ll forget their homework, miss the bus, or fail a test—even if they’ve never done any of these things before—they could be suffering from anxiety or panic disorder.
The prospect of making new friends is nerve-wracking, but shouldn’t be daunting. Engaging in new activities should never unravel your child, and taking new risks should be difficult but not impossible. It’s important to always take your child’s feelings into account; if they seem to be legitimately upset about any of these things, it’s crucial to take stock and let them talk to someone rather than simply insisting that they “toughen up.” According to the Children’s National Health System, a licensed professional can help teach them breathing patterns and thought processes that will help them overcome their anxiety and panic to function properly—and avoid future panic attacks.