Understanding changes in a child or teenager’s behaviour

Glenys Jackson
Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK
25 July 2019
Next review due July 2022

It's often the way a child or teenager behaves, rather than what they say, that suggests they could be going through a tough time emotionally.

They may not tell you 'I'm depressed', but you might wonder why they regularly appear upset. They might not tell you ‘I’m stressed’, but you may notice them being more nervous or irritable than usual. The difficulty for parents can sometimes be telling between ‘usual’ or ‘normal’ behaviour and a potential mental health problem. With that in mind, here are some points that may help to guide you.

Could it just be part of growing up?

Many of the changes you might notice in your child’s behaviour are a normal part of puberty and growing up. They won’t always mean a mental health problem. Equally, mental health problems do affect around one in ten children and young people – so they aren’t uncommon. And despite a welcome increase in people opening up in recent times, mental wellbeing is still generally not discussed enough, for children as much as for adults. So as a parent, it can help to be aware of some of the signs and talk to your child if you’re worried about changes you have noticed.

You might not always need to seek professional help. It might be a passing problem that you can help your child work through, by listening, taking their feelings seriously and helping them make practical changes.

However, if there’s an ongoing problem, or if it’s disrupting your child’s life or your family overall, it’s a good idea to seek support. A good first step is to speak with your GP about any worries you have, which you can do either with your child or without them. Let’s explore some particular concerns you may have.

Could my child be depressed?

It’s very normal for children and teenagers to feel sad and frustrated sometimes. But if it happens a lot you may wonder whether your child may be depressed. Depression is a condition where you have a low mood and a loss of interest and enjoyment in life. It seems to affect more young people today than it used to, but it’s still less common than in adults. Teenagers are more likely to become depressed than younger children.

Your teenager may be experiencing something more than just ‘normal’ mood swings if:

  • their moods or behaviour seem quite intense – for example, they often become very angry or really withdrawn
  • the changes have lasted a couple of weeks or more
  • the changes aren’t only happening in one environment – such as at home – but anywhere, including when they’re at school or socialising with friends
  • For children more so than adults, being irritable often may be one of the signs of depression.

If your GP does confirm or suggest depression, there are lots of things that can help. Your GP may recommend steps you can take at home, including changes to your child’s diet or exercise routine. They may also suggest psychological therapy, such as counselling. If there are significant concerns, your GP may refer your child to local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) for assessment.

Could my child have anxiety?

Being worried or afraid sometimes is natural, and not always a bad thing: it can be part of a healthy response to danger. But when these feelings of anxiety happen often, and if they regularly outweigh any real threats or difficulties, it may be a sign of a mental health problem.

Children affected by anxiety may show signs including:

  • worrying excessively
  • being restless
  • having disturbed sleep
  • being very worried about being separated from you
  • regressing to how they used to act for comfort (eg starting to suck their thumb again when they had stopped years ago)
  • refusing to go to school or having difficulty attending classes
  • being socially withdrawn or aggressive

When asked, children who are anxious may find it easier to describe the physical symptoms of anxiety, rather than emotional ones. These might include, for example, headaches or tense muscles.

As with depression and other mental health problems, your GP can help you and your child to work out what’s happening and advise on treatment and support. There are different types of anxiety, and sometimes children who experience it may have other co-existing mental health issues.

Sometimes, anxiety in young people could be linked to the use of alcohol or drugs. If you think that is the case, there are services that can help you support your child. The NSPCC website has helpful tips.

Other changes you might notice in your child’s behaviour

Other changes you might be worried about could include the following.

  • Becoming more reclusive – perhaps they seem lonely or isolated. Everyone has different needs when it comes to being sociable, but talk to your child if you’re worried.
  • Playing video games all the time – to some extent this is very common and not necessarily a problem. But gaming disorder has recently been classified as a diagnosable mental health problem, so if you think your child has a problem, you should seek help.
  • Changes in their eating habits – they may be eating more or less than they were before, for example, sometimes alongside worries about their body image. The charity Young Minds has great information about eating problems which you may find helpful.

Trusting your instincts

Here we have concentrated on a few changes in children’s behaviour , and discussed depression and anxiety because these are two of the most common mental health problems in teenagers. But there are also other types of mental health problems that occur in young people. As I mentioned at the beginning, it’s also worth remembering that changes may be temporary or part of growing up that you can help with.

The main thing is to trust your instincts as a parent. You know your child best – so if you feel like something’s wrong, speak to them and seek any advice or support you need.

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Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available to you and your loved ones when you need it.

Glenys Jackson
Glenys Jackson
Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK

    • Children and young people. Mental Health Foundation., accessed July 2019
    • Distinguishing depression from normal adolescent mood swings. Harvard Health Publishing., last updated October 2015
    • Depression in children. Diagnosis. NICE CKS., last revised February 2016
    • Child and adolescent psychiatry. Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry (3 ed.) Oxford Medicines Online., last updated December 2015

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