Recognising Signs of Mental Health Challenges in Children and Adolescents

Written by: Thrishala Gunathunga 

Have you seen how sometimes adults struggle to recognize signs of mental health challenges related to children and adolescents? 

There are a few reasons for this, like not having enough knowledge about what a “mental health issue” is. Sometimes, we even normalize problematic behaviours, thinking they’re just a part of growing up. And let’s not forget the hesitation to talk openly about mental health, especially when it involves adolescents. 

But the truth is, early intervention can help children develop effective coping skills and improve their overall quality of life. So, in this article, we will explore physical, behavioural and emotional signs of mental health challenges in children and adolescents. 

Physical Signs: 

  • Frequent complaints such as headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, or body pain without a clear medical cause can be a window to how they are expressing the emotional discomfort, or it can be somatic symptoms associated with depression or anxiety. 
  • Changes in sleeping patterns, such as excessive sleepiness in the daytime or trouble sleeping at night, can indicate symptoms associated with anxiety, mood disorders, or depression. 
  • Sudden weight changes, such as losing weight due to poor appetite or gaining weight due to excessive snacking, can indicate symptoms associated with depression, eating disorders, or other mental health issues. 

Behavioural Signs: 

  • Longer periods of sadness, being irritable most of the time, and noticeable mood changes can be symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders. 
  • Withdrawing from friends, and family, and not being interested in the activities they once used to enjoy can be symptoms of depression, social anxiety, childhood trauma, or other mental health-related issues. 
  • Difficulty maintaining friendships at school or having little social interactions than developmentally appropriate can be symptoms of communication difficulties, social anxiety, childhood trauma, or bullying. 
  • Frequent conflicts with parents, teachers, and friends can be symptoms of emotion regulation difficulties or stress. 
  • Excessive worry about academics, social relationships, and even about simple day-to-day activities to the point that it interferes with normal functioning can be a symptom of anxiety or stress. 
  • Difficulty concentrating on studies and having a significant decline in cognitive performance (especially related to language) can be symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, learning disability, anxiety, or other mental health challenges. 

Emotional Signs: 

  • Intense feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and sadness can be symptoms of depression, low self-esteem, and childhood trauma. 
  • Unusual fear with anxiety attacks to the point that it interrupts daily functioning can be a symptom of anxiety disorder, childhood trauma, and bullying. 
  • Regular anger outbursts and unmanageable aggressive behaviour might be signs of conduct disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, or other emotional distress. 
  • Being overly sensitive to criticism can be a symptom of anxiety, low self-esteem, socialization issues, or other emotional distress. 
  • Having suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviours can be a symptom of intense emotional distress. Such signs should be taken seriously, and it is important to seek immediate professional help. 

In conclusion, recognising the signs of mental health challenges among children and adolescents is essential in the long run. So, what can you do about it? 

  • You should first let the children and adolescents know you are there for them. 
  • Create a safe environment that empowers and comforts them, which will create the basis for them to talk to you about anything. 
  • Encouraging the pursuit of creative outlets, such as drawing, writing, music, or painting, is also a great way to express and cope with difficult emotions. 
  • Raising awareness about the importance of a good lifestyle with a balanced diet, good sleeping routines, and physical exercise also works! 

However, if you feel your child is experiencing mental health challenges, speak with a mental health professional who specialises in working with children. This is because only mental health professionals can make an appropriate diagnosis and the necessary recommendations. 

And keep in mind that it is okay to look out for the above signs. But don’t jump to conclusions on your own. After all, one size does not fit all. What we can do is be compassionate and provide a safe space for children and adolescents to communicate their true feelings.