One in five children experience mental health disorders in a given year, yet half of those children do not receive the care they need. Learn how to recognize the signs of a mental health problem and what to do to help your child or teen. Just as you would get them help for a broken bone or physical illness, you can and should get them help for mental health problems.
Learn ways to support your child or teen’s mental wellness, signs of a mental health problem, warning signs of a potential crisis or suicide, steps you can take and how to get help. Also get tips to help your child support friends and peers who may be dealing with mental health challenges.
If your child or teen’s behaviors make you wonder if they have a mental health condition contact your child’s doctor. If you’re exploring conditions related to behaviors your child displays, consider using this symptom checker from Child Mind Institute.
Learn the early warning signs of mental health issues in kids and teens. Know the signs. Act early. (Video :30)
Common mental health problems and resources
ADHD is the most common mental health problem of childhood. If your child or teen has problems with family, friends or school due to trouble with attention, learning or behavior that lasts longer than six months, they may have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or a related disorder such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).
Anxiety is a common mental health problem in children. These are fears and worries that are out of scale with the situation and get in the way of normal day-to-day activities. Often a child has considerable distress and negative thinking and tries to avoid what causes their stress. Physical symptoms may include headaches or stomach aches.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder, which means it is based in the brain. It’s a disorder that unfolds over time. The diagnosis is made by studying a child’s behavior, not through medical tests. The diagnosis is based on impairments in social behavior and restricted activities and interests.
A mood disorder that can cause a child to feel sad, hopeless, cranky or tired. There can be changes in sleep, appetite and weight. It affects how a child feels, thinks and acts. A child may have trouble doing normal activities or feel life isn't worth living.
A mood disorder in which a child experiences extreme changes in mood from sadness (or depression) and to feeling high (mania). During both the depression phase and the mania phase a child may have irrational anger. These changes affect sleep, appetite, concentration, behavior and place a child at risk for self-harm. These mood changes may be separated by days or months.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder. Children and teens have repeated worries called obsessions. Common obsessions are around germs and cleanliness. The worries make kids with OCD repeat the same behaviors over and over (compulsions or rituals).
It is common for children to be defiant toward adults sometimes. For example, they may argue, refuse to do what they are told or talk back. However, if your child has negative, hostile and defiant behavior that lasts more than six months and is worse than behavior normally seen in children of the same age, your child may have oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). ODD is a behavior disorder that often co-occurs along with other disorders, such as attention disorder, learning problems, conduct disorders and anxiety and mood disorders.
This free service connects families with mental health providers who have openings in their schedule and can meet your child’s needs.
How can I support my child with emotion and/or behavior issues?
Consistency and a daily routine provide structure to allow your child to thrive as they grow and develop. Small things like following through on what you tell your child and setting and sticking to regular wake up, meal and bedtimes can support them. When your child can count on some stability in their life, it makes it easier for them to learn appropriate behaviors and cope with the unpredictable parts of life.
Children often act out because they are frustrated and have a hard time communicating this to their parents. Parents can use “emotion coaching” to help their child name the feeling. Then they use validation to tell their child that they understand and accept their thoughts or feelings. Validation doesn’t mean you are agreeing with or like their behavior, but that you are listening and trying to understand their point of view.
These resources can help you learn about behavior problems, emotion coaching and validation:
This list can help you connect with social services and support.
How can I learn to recognize when my child is upset, why, and what helps them cope?
The escalation cycle is a tool that explains emotion or behavior during a crisis situation. It has six stages identified by different colors and guides parents through how to help their child in each stage. The use of a “coping card” together with the escalation cycle is an essential element in understanding the emotions that trigger certain behavior in your child.
This tool is best used to support youth with depression, self-harm or suicidal ideation as well as youth with behavioral outbursts. It can help you and your child learn which situations lead you to emotional or behavioral distress and which coping skills can help.
This tool is best used to support youth with depression, self-harm or suicidal ideation as well as youth with behavioral outbursts. Print this out and fill it in to make a coping card for your child, and one for you, too.
How can I make my home safer for my child with a mental health problem?
Home safety is important for all families. Children and teens with mental health problems are at higher risk for harming themselves. There are things you can do to make your home safer for your child and the rest of your family.
Seattle Children’s complies with applicable federal and other civil rights laws and does not discriminate, exclude people or treat them differently based on race, color, religion (creed), sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, national origin (ancestry), age, disability, or any other status protected by applicable federal, state or local law. Financial assistance for medically necessary services is based on family income and hospital resources and is provided to children under age 21 whose primary residence is in Washington, Alaska, Montana or Idaho.
By clicking “Accept All Cookies,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage and assist in marketing efforts. For more information, see Website Privacy.