[Guest blog] A parent’s guide to spotting the signs of mental health problems

Training and Quality Officer at YoungMinds
06 February 2017

white paperclip icon

This article is more than three years old. It reflects the best available evidence at the time of publication.

This week is Children’s Mental Health Week – an important topic that certainly needs a lot of awareness around it. Not only do mental health problems greatly impact the emotional and physical wellbeing of a child, but they can also affect the whole family – parents, siblings, grandparents – those who most want to help and actually may not know exactly how to.

It can be greatly upsetting and distressing to know your child may be showing signs of mental ill-health. Even when your child is slightly ‘out of sorts’, it can be hard to know when or whether to be worried, how to approach the situation, or where to turn for support.

Here, I am going to talk about some of the mental health issues that can affect children and what you can do, as a parent, if you suspect your child is having problems.

Signs of depression in children

We get a lot of calls to the YoungMinds Parents Helpline from parents and carers who say: ‘I think my son or daughter might be depressed, but I’m not sure.’ As a starting point, we usually ask the parent why they think this. Parents will often say they simply have a gut feeling that something isn’t right.

And I believe that all of us should trust our gut feelings; you generally know your child better than anyone else.

Listen to the tone of your child’s voice. Do they sound down? Is there a ‘nothingness’ to it? You can often spot the early signs of low mood or depression through a ‘flatness’ in your child’s voice. Although teenagers can be known for grunting and moodiness, there are other underlying or subtle indications that parents pick up when things aren’t quite right. You might have noticed that they:

  • have become very withdrawn
  • are persistently sad or more tearful
  • get more irritated or angry than usual
  • can’t sleep, or sleep a lot more than usual
  • are exhausted all the time
  • have no appetite
  • have a permanent sense of hopelessness

Consider what’s going on at school or college. Changes in their attendance, interest, concentration or performance can sometimes indicate a problem, or they might have become disruptive and uncooperative. Some children may simply start refusing to go to school altogether. Outside of school, are they losing interest in hobbies, clubs or seeing friends? Have they withdrawn completely into an online world?

If you suspect that your child might be depressed – whether it’s your inner voice or tangible changes in behaviour, personality, mood or attitude – talk to your child. Ask them what’s troubling them and tell them that you’re worried. Explain that you’re there for them and listen without judging. Go to your GP if you suspect depression – with your child if they agree, but it’s also fine to go alone to discuss your concerns and ask advice. It’s better to check it out early than wait.

Signs of anxiety in children

Anxiety in children seems to be on the increase in all age groups. The pressures, stresses and expectations of modern life can wear down children’s sense of wellbeing and emotional resilience. Even three-year-olds, who are already very in-tune with what’s going on around them, can pick up and take on their parents’ anxiety about the world around them. Older children view and learn about things through the internet and social media that perhaps they shouldn’t be exposed to, which they can find traumatising.

At YoungMinds, we hear from parents about how their children are showing all sorts of anxiety, such as:

The advice we give to parents who suspect their child is developing anxiety is to go to the GP sooner rather than later. They may suggest a ‘wait and see’ approach, but the key thing is that it’s now been logged with your GP. If anxiety symptoms then worsen, you can go back to report a worsening of the previous concern and ‘wait and see’ is likely to turn into ‘next steps’.

How to talk to your child about anxiety

We offer a few basic tips for parents about what they can do to help at home, such as making time to talk to your child and ‘normalising’ their worrying.

  • Don’t interrogate them, but try to encourage your child to open up about what’s going on in their life and how they feel about it. Make sure this is a two-way conversation by opening up about the things you happen to be worrying about (but be careful not to make the whole conversation about you).
  • Help them to recognise and face up to their anxious feelings and perhaps visualise them as a wave they need to surf.
  • Reassure them that it will pass.
  • Encourage breathing techniques, relaxation, exercise, sports groups and clubs to help reduce anxiety and increase wellbeing.

With younger children, you could introduce a ‘worry box’. Your child is given a set time each day to think about what’s worrying them. They write down, draw or tell the box their worries, and then shut the lid on their worries for that day. These types of techniques can be very effective at reducing ongoing worry and anxiety in younger children.

Teenagers and young adults with anxiety are more likely to prefer getting in contact with organisations such as The Mix. This charity provides support and advice for young people via helplines, message boards, web chat and text.

Anxiety is very treatable. Counselling and talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be very effective. Your GP will be able to tell you about any options available locally, and some parents consider looking at private counselling.

Other mental health and wellbeing issues

Every day we receive calls from distressed parents, who want advice and guidance on a whole range of concerns with their children and young people, including:

  • self-harm
  • ADHD
  • eating disorders and body image issues
  • drug abuse
  • bullying
  • uncontrollable anger
  • low self-esteem
  • online safety
  • trauma and abuse

If there’s one piece of advice that I’d like to give above all others, it’s about early intervention. If you’re a parent who feels reluctant to ask for help, or if you prefer to wait to see if it’s a ‘phase’ or if it’ll go away, I would encourage you to start to address the issue in some form as soon as possible.

Turning your inner voice into action, investigating your concerns and ‘nipping things in the bud’ early means any problems are less likely to become entrenched as your child and teenager moves into adulthood.

Helplines and support

As a parent, knowing or suspecting that your child may have a mental health problem can be greatly worrying and distressing. Addressing your worries head-on and calmly taking control of the situation is the best thing to do.It’s important to remember that there is plenty of advice out there to support you through it. As well as your GP, your child’s school and other statutory services, there is support online and via helplines. You’re certainly not alone in your concerns.

YoungMinds logo

 YoungMinds is the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people.

YoungMinds Parents helpline
0808 802 5544

YoungMinds is a recent grant recipient from the Bupa UK Foundation. The Foundation funds practical projects that will make a direct impact on people's health and wellbeing. Launched in 2015, to date it has awarded over £1 million in grants to 36 projects across the UK, supporting work to improve people’s mental health and to support carers.

Barbara Benson
Training and Quality Officer at YoungMinds

Did you find our advice helpful?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our healthy lifestyle articles.