Noticing mental health concerns for your child
Emotional and behavioural difficulties can arise at any time and can affect anyone. It is important to consider signs that could indicate that your child is struggling with an emerging or escalating mental health problem. Identifying problems early, and providing caring support, goes a long way toward prevention and/or worsening of difficulties.
On this page:
How would I know that my child is experiencing a mental health problem?
Parents and caring adults may notice changes in behaviours and emotions that could be potential signs of a mental health problem. Ask yourself:
- Are these behaviours and emotions out of character for my child?
- Are they having a negative impact on my child’s ability to enjoy everyday life?
- Are they having a negative impact on our family life?
- Are they getting in the way of my child’s progress at school?
- Are these concerning behaviours happening more often?
- Are they more intense?
- Are they lasting longer?
Signs that may indicate a mental health concern for younger children
- frequently changing mood/emotions
- easily hurt feelings, crying, anger
- ongoing temper tantrums, throwing things, hitting people, etc.
- ongoing sadness and lack of interest in things they normally enjoy
- withdrawal from friends and family
- increased need for contact and reassurance
- little motivation or interest in schoolwork, activities
- difficulty concentrating
- low frustration tolerance, irritability
- increase in headaches, stomach aches, other aches and pains
- decreased energy, problems with sleep or appetite changes
Signs that may indicate a mental health concern for older children and teens
- outbursts of anger or distress
- frequent irritability
- feelings of anxiety and panic
- excessive worries and fears about the safety of family, friends, self
- increased defiance and opposition
- school refusal
- use of drugs and/or alcohol
- withdrawal from family activities
- withdrawal from friends
- ongoing negative remarks about self
- interest in activities from younger years
- declining grades, low motivation to complete tasks
- changes in eating and sleeping
- frequent talk about death and dying
- giving away possessions
How can I get ready to approach my child if I am concerned?
It can be challenging to talk with your child about mental health problems. However, research tells us that when parents discuss their concerns with them, it opens up the lines of communication and may help improve the situation.
Remember to take the time and prepare yourself for a calm discussion. You may feel anxious about what you are noticing in your child. So, it is a good idea to take a moment to care for your
own wellness before you approach your child about this. Perhaps you might take some deep breaths or go for a walk to relax. Or settle your thoughts in a way that works for you (e.g. drawing your attention gently to one thing you see, one thing you hear, and one thing you feel).
How can I talk to my child about mental health?
- Find a quiet time when you are unlikely to have interruptions to begin the conversation.
- Reassure your child that they can tell you anything and you will not get angry with them (even if you get scared).
- Start the conversation by describing changes you have noticed in their mood, behaviour, reactions (e.g. “I have noticed that you seem to be crying more”). If you have had conversations with your child’s teacher about concerns, include comments from the teacher’s observations.
- Share that you wonder about how your child might be feeling, what they might be thinking, what they might be worried about, etc. (e.g. “I wonder if you’re feeling sad about losing your friendship with Rohan.”).
- Allow your child time to reflect before they answer.
- Stay calm and don’t abandon the conversation if your child responds with “nothing is wrong…leave me alone”. If this happens, reassure your child that you are there for them. Give your child some time and then try again.
- If your child does acknowledge some concerns, tell them that you are glad they told you and that you are there to help. You can work on some things together (see below for ideas) and/ or you can help them find a mental health professional to talk to. Reassure your child that they are not alone and that you will be there for them every step of the way.
- If your child tells you anything that makes you worried about their immediate safety (e.g. thoughts of suicide), reach out for assistance. Do not leave your child alone if you feel that they are in imminent danger of harming themselves.
What can I do to help if my child is struggling with their mental health?
In non-urgent situations, there are many ways that parents can provide support when their child is experiencing feelings of sadness, anger, worry etc. Here are a few ideas:
- Stay calm. Take care of yourself and your own wellness so you can be in a good place to help your child.
- Try to take pressure off where you can. For example, reduce the number of chores they take on, avoid talking about things causing you stress, try not to expose them to worrisome news in the media.
- Listen to your child as they describe their thoughts and emotions. Just listening, and reflecting back what you hear, goes a long way to helping your child to feel heard and supported. Try not to judge, jump in with quick solutions, or minimize the concern.
- Inspire hope. Even if you don’t know the answers, or if solutions seem a long way away, reassure your child that you will find a way through it together.
- Help your child to look for positives and things to be grateful for, even in tough situations. Sometimes when worries overwhelm us, we focus on all that is wrong and forget to remember all the good things, and helpers, that can get us through. You can offer some suggestions and even make a list to post somewhere as a reminder.
- Sometimes when people feel anxious or upset, deep calming breathing can help. It can help us to slow down and think more clearly.
- If your child is experiencing a low mood, one of the best things they can do is to get active. Even 15-20 minutes of physical movement that raises their heart rate can help them to feel better. They can try walking, playing ball, dancing, exercising, or something else they might enjoy. It might be hard to get them moving at first, but once they see that it makes them feel better, it will get easier to get started next time.
- If you and your child can get outside and into nature of any kind, it can lift their spirits (and yours). Pay attention to the sounds, smells, and sights, even if all you can do is take a moment to watch or listen to the birds or trees outside of your window. If you are able to get outdoors, help your child to notice the feel of the sun, the breeze, the rain and the beauty of the earth.
- If you are able, try to spend one-on-one time with your child each day, even 10-15 minutes, where you are there to just be with them. Follow their lead, and let them pick the activity that you will do together.
- Engage in identity-affirming activities. Encourage the exploration of cultural and social activities to help develop a sense of cultural identity and self esteem. This will be unique to each diverse cultural group.
- Consider helping your child to find opportunities to do something nice for others. This could be taking on a volunteer opportunity, or sending a kind note to a friend or family member. Doing something for others can help us to feel better too.
Help is available for suicide crisis and prevention
If it is an emergency – your child is talking about an active suicide plan or has already engaged in suicidal behaviour – do not leave your child or teen alone. Immediately contact Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 or a local crisis line, go to the emergency room of your local hospital, or call for an ambulance.
When should I reach out for additional help?
If your child does not seem to be improving with the actions you have tried, and if you are still feeling worried about their well-being, it might be time to reach out for more help.
Certainly, if your child is engaging in self-harm behavior (e.g. cutting or burning themselves, taking risky actions or escalating substance misuse) or if you learn that they are having thoughts of suicide, seek immediate assistance.
How can I access professional mental health help for my child?
If your child is already connected to the school support team, you can reach out to them. If not, check with the school principal to learn about school mental health services that are available. There are also resources available in your community. See our list of community mental health resources.