Troubled Waters: How to Recognize Signs of Mental Distress in Your Child

The Kids are Not Alright. This phrase is repeatedly restated in recent reports and assessments of youth mental health in the United States. According to the American Psychological Association, a mental health crisis in youth has been building for over a decade and was exacerbated by the COVID 19 pandemic. “In the 10 years leading up to the pandemic, feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness—as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors—increased by about 40% among young people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.” Parents can help to protect their kids by learning about this crisis and monitoring children for signs of trouble.

The APA video, The Kids are Not Alright, explains the decline in youth mental health and details how parents and mental health providers can treat and support children to reverse this trend. 

Nearly all children and teens faced social isolation and academic disruption during the pandemic.  Many also lost caregivers to COVID-19, had a parent lose their job, or were victims of physical or emotional abuse at home.

Growing concerns about social media, mass violence, natural disasters, climate change, and political polarization—not to mention the normal ups and downs of childhood and adolescence—all contribute to mental health struggles in kids.

Parents can help children to overcome these challenges, but they must first be able to identify whether their child is experiencing mental health decline. These signs will be individual to the child and can vary depending on age. In general, parents can look for the following:

Some signs of mental health issues in infants, toddlers and young children:

  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Bedwetting
  • Anxious behavior
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Developmental issues

Some signs of mental health distress in older children and teens are:

  • Persistent sadness that lasts two weeks or more
  • Withdrawing from or avoiding social interactions
  • Hurting oneself or talking about hurting oneself
  • Talking about death or suicide
  • Outbursts or extreme irritability
  • Out-of-control behavior that can be harmful
  • Drastic changes in mood, behavior or personality
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Loss of weight
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in academic performance
  • Avoiding or missing school

If you notice these signs of distress in your child, the Mayo Clinic recommends parents, “…consult your child’s health care provider. Describe the behaviors that concern you. Talk to your child’s teacher, close friends, relatives or other caregivers to see if they’ve noticed changes in your child’s behavior. Share this information with your child’s health care provider.”


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