Youth mental health Does my child need help with their mental health? June 17 2019
Sophia Russell Sophia Russell Writer

It's not unusual for kids to be emotional, but how do you know when they need some extra support?

We all want our kids to lead happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.

So, it’s only natural to worry when you notice something in their behaviour that seems out of character, or just doesn’t ‘feel right’. You may wonder: is this something that will pass with time, or should I be concerned? At what point do I seek professional help?

Like adults, it’s not unusual for children and teenagers to get angry occasionally and experience brief periods of sadness or anxiety. Sometimes though, a child’s behaviour is a sign of a deeper problem with their mental health. In fact, approximately 50% of mental health disorders have an onset before the age of 14 years old, and recent research suggests many Australian children with symptoms of mental health problems aren’t getting the help they need. 

If you have concerns, it’s important to get help from a health professional who can offer treatment and support – and the earlier, the better. Here are some common warning signs that might indicate your child needs professional help with their mental health.

Your child’s behaviour is worrying you, or you notice a change in their behaviour 

Behaviour is one of the easiest signs to pick up on, especially if you live with someone and see how they act day to day. Other aspects to consider are a person’s emotions and thought patterns. Are they anxious most of the time? Do they often voice negative thoughts about themselves?

Behaviours, thoughts and emotions that might signal an underlying mental health problem in young children (aged 12 and under) include:   

  • frequent periods of sadness
  • aggressive behaviour such as frequent yelling, kicking or damaging things
  • constant fears and anxieties
  • difficulties getting along with other children
  • compulsive behaviour that interferes with daily life
  • frequent, unexplained temper tantrums
  • struggling to calm down after getting upset

For teenagers, look out for things like: 

  • constant feelings of hopelessness
  • a significant drop in school performance
  • being overly anxious about weight or physical appearance
  • self-harming behaviours
  • excessive drug and alcohol use
  • withdrawing from friends and family
  • trouble eating or sleeping

If you’re unsure whether a child’s behaviour is cause for concern, an online child mental health checklist (such as this one from Beyond Blue) can be a helpful tool. 

A tween girl crying

Their behaviour occurs frequently and persists for more than two weeks

All kids occasionally have temper tantrums and experience bouts of sadness. However, it’s important to be mindful whether they frequently display certain behaviours. For example, if they are anxious, do they only worry occasionally, or are they experiencing anxiety almost all the time? If it’s the latter, it may be time to get professional help. 

The duration of a child’s behaviour can also indicate whether something more serious is going on. Lots of things can cause a child to behave differently, such as school exams, family tensions or problems with friends. In many cases, they improve with time and no intervention is needed. If, however, your child’s behaviour or mood lasts longer than two weeks, it may be a sign they need help. 

Their behaviour interferes with daily life, school, home, friendships

A major factor in determining whether certain behaviours are symptoms of a mental health problem is how it impacts a child’s life.  Is their mood or behaviour affecting their ability to do everyday tasks? Is it preventing them from leaving the house and engage socially with others? Are they finding it difficult to go to school, or participate in hobbies or sports they usually enjoy?

To get a clear picture, it may be helpful to consult with other people in your child’s life, such as their school teacher or childcare worker. They can offer a different perspective on your child, as they observe them in an environment outside of home.

Further help and support

If emergency support is needed where life is in imminent danger, call 000 (triple zero).

If mental health crisis support is needed urgently, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

If you’d still like to chat to someone about whether your child should seek professional help, we can help. Our Mental Health Navigation Service is a 24/7 nation-wide telephone support service available to Bupa Health Insurance members who have an active Hospital product that covers themselves and their children. Visit our Bupa Mental Health Navigation page for more information.

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Sophia Russell Sophia Russell Writer Sophia Russell is a former journalist turned freelance writer. She writes about health, parenting, relationships, work life balance, pop culture and what makes people tick.