October 3, 2019

Understanding mental health in kids and teens

Signs to look out for and ways you can help teens who may be experiencing a mental health condition.

With social, school, athletic, and cultural pressures, today’s youth have a lot to deal with. Anxiety and stress are a normal part of growing up — worrying about a test, a big game, or about getting into college is common. Periodic bad moods or mood swings can also be normal in kids, especially teens.

When it goes beyond a temporary phase or occasional event, it could be a sign of something more. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, known as NAMI, half of all chronic mental health conditions begin by age 14 and three-quarters by age 24. However, mental health conditions are treatable.

Here are some signs to look out for and actions to take if you’re worried your child or teen may be experiencing a mental health condition.

Signs to look out for

  • Loss of interest in usually pleasurable activities
  • Being consistently down, negative, irritable, or listlessness; having low self-esteem, guilt, or low energy; crying more than normal
  • Withdrawing from social functions, social isolation, rejection of or loss of friends
  • Sleep issues, nightmares
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches, or change in appetite
  • Avoiding school, frequently getting in trouble at school, trouble concentrating or decline in grades
  • Talk of or efforts to run away from home
  • Substance abuse
  • Talk of suicide or signs of self-harm behaviors (for example, cutting or, burning)

If any of these signs are happening frequently or over an extended period of time, it may be time to talk to your child’s pediatrician.

What you can do

Speak with your child or teen at a level based on age: Let kids know you are concerned and then just listen. Ask questions based on what they say and listen some more. You can also ask in a non-judgmental way about their behaviors or symptoms that concern you. It’s important not to diagnose or accuse them. If they think you’ll get angry, or that their distress will make you upset or sad, they may decide not to open up in order to protect you.

Be present. Sometimes just being in the same room sends a message that you’re available if they need to talk. If they start to talk, put down what you’re doing to signal you want to hear what they have to say.

Empathize. Don’t dismiss what they’re feeling: Show them you understand what they’re going through and that you’re there to help. Remain respectful and offer hope.

Assess. Note how they’re doing at home, school, and socially. While problems in any of these areas may be cause for concern, problems in 2 or more may indicate it’s time to get some professional help.

Talk to your pediatrician. Seek a diagnosis and discuss an appropriate care plan. Treatment can vary based on severity of symptoms, but can include counseling, behavioral therapy, support groups, and/or medication.