The journey through childhood and adolescence can be a difficult one, paved with physical and emotional twists and turns. Oftentimes, it's normal for young people to experience shifts in their physical and emotional behavior, but sometimes these changes can signal a mental health problem. 

Teens and kids experience the same mental health issues adults do—including anxiety, eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bipolar disorder. However, they may not experience the same signs as adults, and sometimes the signs aren’t as obvious in kids either.

Teens and children often struggle to rationalize and vocalize their feelings, which makes it important for parents to be aware of a mental health condition. Spotting the signs of mental illness quickly can be important, since swift or early treatment is typically more effective.

Here are seven indicators of a mental illness, each of which can indicate a number of different conditions and should not be ignored. A doctor or other mental health professional can best identify the problem and get your child the help he or she needs.   

  1. Frequent and intense mood swings

When you hear the term "mood swing" your mind might rush to an image of a temperamental teen or adolescent. The truth is that most people, adults included, experience mood swings—a rapid change in feelings from time to time – but the reason for these shifts can vary. 

Changing and fluctuating hormones can cause mild moodiness, but swings that are intense or happen frequently may not be a product of normal adolescent angst. Extreme changes in a child's mood can signal a mood disorder, like bipolar disorder or depression.

Although we know bipolar disorder is a brain illness, the underlying cause is not well known, and experts believe it may be the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, environmental factors like trauma, or both. Swings vary between children, but may include periods of high energy, irritability, unusual happiness, extreme sadness or lack of energy.        

Mood disorders can be effectively treated with medications and therapies, but not without proper detection and diagnosis. If your child experiences unusually frequent or severe changes in mood, speak with a healthcare provider about a consultation and evaluation for a mental illness.

  1. Difficulty executing daily tasks

For many children, and even adults, performing daily tasks, like attending school, getting up for work, cooking and cleaning, can be tough with a mental illness. A number of anxiety-related conditions like generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic attacks and phobias, as well as their related symptoms, can interfere with a person’s ability to function on a day-to-day basis.

A child with an anxiety disorder may:

  • Find it difficult to concentrate
  • Become irritable
  • Perform poorly in school
  • Be restless or fatigued during the day
  • Have headaches or stomachaches

Children with anxiety often avoid talking about their feelings because they fear others—especially their parents—will worry. Parents who spot signs of anxiety in their children should talk to them in a supportive and nonjudgmental way.

Difficulty concentrating and staying on task, both of which can make everyday activities tough, may also be signs of depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Regardless of illness, children who struggle to complete daily tasks should be evaluated by a professional, and adults can also help kids by scheduling an appointment with the child's primary care physician for evaluation and treatment. 

  1. A change in eating habits

It's common to compare yourself to others, but when your child is going to extreme measures in an attempt to obtain the "picture-perfect" appearance, it may be time for a parent to step in.

Eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, are serious conditions characterized by unhealthy eating behaviors, like restricting calories, binging and purging or regularly eating large qualities of food.

Signs of these mental illnesses can vary, but they often include:

  • Skipping meals
  • A drastic increase in exercise
  • Routinely making a trip to the bathroom during meals
  • Eating quickly and consuming more food than normal
  • Frequently complaining about his/her body
  • Weight loss or lack of expected weight gain

Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia can cause some serious damage, affecting your heart, digestion, bones, menstrual cycle and kidneys. Binge eating doesn't always lead to weight gain, but it can, which would likely increase your risk for diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.  

Sometimes, changes in eating habits can signal a disorder, like anxiety or depression. Don’t let changes in your child's eating habits go unnoticed. It's likely he or she needs help, and making an appointment with a physician is just the first step. 

  1. Signs of self-harm

Self-harm refers to the act of intentionally inflicting nonfatal pain on yourself, and one in every 100 people in the US do it. This behavior typically begins in teens or young adults, and can include cutting, punching or burning yourself, or pulling out your hair.

Self-harm is not a mental illness, but it may be a signal of an underlying mental health concern, like depression, anxiety or PTSD. Not everyone's reasons for self-inflicted harm are the same, but many do it to find some relief from pain, anger or trauma. 

Self-harm scars aren't always visible either, so it's important to recognize other signs like:

  • Wearing long sleeves or pants in hot weather
  • Impulsiveness or unpredictability
  • Rubbing an area of skin to create a burn
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand
  • Fresh cuts or bruises

If you notice these signs, sit down with your child and find out what's been going on. Don’t wait to make an appointment with a healthcare professional to get your son or daughter treatment for the underlying condition. Click here to make an appointment.

  1. Your child is sad, withdrawn or depressed

We all have our bad days, but when thoughts of sadness linger or performing daily tasks become daunting, it could be a sign your child has depression. This mood disorder is characterized by sadness, irritability and withdrawal that lasts for weeks or months at a time.  

Depression can affect a child's energy, sleep and appetite. It makes schoolwork and even keeping up with friends a challenge. There are some other signs your child is experiencing depression and may need help from a professional, like:

  • Frequent sadness or crying
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal from family and friends

Depressive symptoms that last for two weeks or interfere with a child's ability to go to school and socialize with other kids, should be brought to a doctor's attention.

  1. Changes in sleeping habits

If you’ve noticed changes in your child’s sleep patterns, it might signal a mental health issue like depression, PTSD or other anxiety disorders.

Some changes that might mean a mental health problem include:

  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Nightmares
  • Fear before going to bed


Make an appointment with your healthcare provider if you notice these changes. Your doctor can help determine whether the sleep changes are due to a mental health condition, or perhaps a sleep disorder like insomnia, restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea.

  1. Your teen is abusing drugs and alcohol

Many children and teens struggle silently with mental health issues, and may resort to extreme measures to cope with their feelings. Disorders like depression, among other mental illnesses, are often coupled with alcohol and prescription drug abuse.

These substances can be addictive and lead to serious health problems. They also impair judgement and increase the likelihood of teens to engage in risky behaviors, like impaired driving and sexual activity.

Some signs of substance abuse among teens, include:

  • Withdrawing from family
  • Disregarding rules
  • Exhibiting poor judgement and lack of interest
  • A change in friends, eating and sleeping habits, and performance in school

Speaking with your teen about drugs and alcohol is a good first step, but if you think the cause of the abuse is a mental health issue or if your child has developed a dependency to drugs or alcohol, you should contact a healthcare provider. It's never too early to get your children the help they need. 

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