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Signs your child is struggling with their mental health

It’s important to know what signs to look out for

A father and son walking and talking outdoors
A father and son walking and talking outdoors

Mental wellbeing is a huge topic these days and good mental health in children is just as vital as it is in adults. Mental wellness is essential for kids to be able to adapt to change, build resilience, increase self-esteem, form healthy relationships and, ultimately, live their best lives. But the state of a child’s mental health can be affected by so many things going on around them day to day, from family situations to school, life events and more.

“Children are going through a tremendous amount of change from when they are born through to adulthood, so they are in a constant state of developmental change,” explains psychologist, personal coach and author Dr Marny Lishman.

Mental health issues in children

An estimated one in seven Aussie kids experience mental health issues and about half of all serious adult mental health issues begin before the age of 14. While mental health issues in children can occur at any age, kids between 12 and 16 years old are most at risk – though mental illness in children can show up much younger.

When it comes to mood disorders in children and adolescents, depression and bipolar disorder are among the most common. Girls are at least twice as likely as boys to develop depression, while boys and girls are equally likely to develop bipolar disorder.

While diagnosis of child personality disorders does happen, many doctors are reluctant to name personality disorders in children, as they feel certain changes in personality are normal during development (though there is evidence to suggest some children are more at risk of developing personality disorders as adults).

Related: Mental health vs mental illness

How can I recognise mental illness?

Mental illness in children and adults alike is usually characterised by a combination of abnormal thoughts, emotions, behaviours and relationships. However, “the symptoms of some mental health issues can exhibit differently in different children, at different ages and different developmental stages, as well as children not being able to explain how they feel or why they may be feeling it”, explains Marny – so it’s important to know what to look for.

Some of the signs of mental illness in children may be:

  • frequent, unexplained temper tantrums

  • unusual fears

  • trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep

  • persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness that last weeks or even months

  • avoiding friends or family and wanting to be alone most of the time

  • often refusing to go to school (or preschool)

  • an inability to get along with other children

  • hyperactive behaviour (beyond regular playing)

  • frequent unexpected aggressive outbursts or reactions

  • trouble concentrating or paying attention.

A dad and daughter laying on the deck together

“You may also notice they stop doing activities that they once enjoyed, there may be changes in eating habits and academic performance, mood changes or out-of-control behaviour – and, if they are older, they may be purposefully acting up, being argumentative or skipping school etc,” adds Marny.

Signs of mental illness in toddlers may look a little different but can be spotted by caregivers. Think: displays of challenging, angry, impulsive or hyperactive behaviours (such as restlessness and difficulty paying attention) that are disruptive.

Harder to catch are “internalising behaviours”, such as withdrawal, worry, fearfulness and becoming easily upset. They may also have trouble regulating their behaviour, calming down after being upset, expressing their feelings, playing with other kids and making friends, or interacting with their family members as well as understanding social cues and appropriate behaviour in public.

Getting help

Here are a few ways you can help support your child with their mental wellbeing:

1. Contact your GP for personalised advice

“If there are any concerns about a child’s mental health, a good starting point is the family GP,” advises Marny. “The GP can then assess and either treat the child themselves or refer them on to the most appropriate specialist if required – a psychologist, for example – for further assessment and the right therapy.”

Related: 6 ways to get help for mental health – and you won’t have to pay a thing!

2. Keep a journal

If you notice behavioural changes in your child, keep a journal so you have a full picture to share with your doctor. Jot down things like what the behaviour is and how often it happens, how long it goes on and at what time of day, what happened before and after and any patterns you notice.

3. Create a supportive environment

As well as seeking professional help, creating a loving and supportive environment for your child at home is important. Spend time together doing things they enjoy, encourage them, check in with how they’re feeling often and listen to their concerns. Maintaining a regular routine can also help.

4. Look after your own mental wellbeing

Parenting a child with mental illness can be tough, so it’s important to look after your own mental health while you’re at it. Take time out for yourself and consider speaking to a counsellor or other healthcare professional for support.

If you or your child need help, please call:

  • Lifeline 13 11 14

  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

  • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Dr Marny Lishman

Marny Lishman is a qualified psychologist who believes the challenges many people face are due to their lack of knowledge surrounding the mindset and lifestyle balance required to live a healthy, satisfying and fulfilling life. She is passionate about teaching the tools and techniques to promote a healthy mindset for better wellbeing and more success. Marny is partial to soy chai lattes and is on a mission to find Australia’s best avocado smash.