How to spot the signs of poor mental health in children

An image of Harriet and Danielle
Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa
24 April 2024
Next review due April 2027

Mental health problems can be common amongst children. One in six children, aged five to 16, are thought to have a mental health condition. Your child may find it difficult to understand or talk about how they’re feeling. Here, we discuss potential signs of poor mental health to look out for in your child and suggest ways you can manage it.

adults and toddlers laughing, playing on the sofa

Five signs of poor mental health in children

Mental health is an important part of children’s overall health and wellbeing. It can be difficult to recognise when your child is struggling with their mental health, and they may find it hard to speak about. They might not have the language to communicate how they’re feeling, or they could be unsure who to turn to.

Here are some signs to look out for which may indicate poor mental health in your child.

  • Sudden changes in your child’s mood or behaviour.
  • Reluctance to socialise with friends or family.
  • Unexplained changes in appetite or weight.
  • Difficulty sleeping, or sleeping too much.
  • Sudden misbehaviour at school or poor academic performance.

There could be many possible explanations for changes in your child’s behaviour, so it’s important to talk to them and not assume what’s going on.

If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, you can talk to their GP. They’ll be able to diagnose possible mental health conditions or refer them to a specialist.

Types of mental health conditions in children

All children will feel sad, anxious, or angry from time to time. But if their symptoms are persistent and impacting their daily life, they may have an underlying mental health condition.

Symptoms can vary depending on the condition. Below are some examples of different mental health conditions to be aware of.

  • Depression – if your child has depression, they may feel sad for a long time and struggle to enjoy daily life. They might also cry a lot if they’re depressed.
  • Anxiety – anxiety causes children to often feel worried about things. Your child might have anxiety about everyday life, known as generalised anxiety disorder. Or their anxiety might be about something specific such as social interaction (social anxiety). People with anxiety also sometimes experience panic attacks.
  • Eating disorders – your child might have an eating difficulty if they have a difficult relationship with food. This can include eating much more or less food than they need.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – this is a type of anxiety disorder where your child may have repetitive thoughts or behaviours. For example, they might keep washing their hands, or worry about something specific. These worries could be about themselves or family members.

Symptoms of mental health conditions can overlap or change over time. This can make it difficult to know exactly which condition your child might have, if they have one at all. Don’t be afraid to seek medical help if you’re unsure about your child’s symptoms.

How to manage your child’s mental health

It’s worrying for any parent if your child is struggling. Being attentive to any changes in behaviour can help you spot the signs of poor mental health in your child. But you may be unsure on the best way to help them.

Here are some things you can do at home to help manage your child’s symptoms.

Keep a routine

Sticking to a regular routine for things like bedtimes and mealtimes may be helpful to give your child’s day some structure. If your child is distressed, they may take longer to fall asleep or have a change in appetite. Keeping to a routine could help to manage this.

Have open conversations

Talking to your child about how they feel is important. They may be unsure how to express their emotions and need you to initiate these conversations. You may also want to share things about your own mental health and let them know that it’s normal to struggle sometimes.

If your child finds talking in person too overwhelming, you could communicate using different methods, such as messaging. Find a way that’s most comfortable for you both.

Give them praise

Praising your child when they do well can help to boost their confidence.

Encourage them to spend time with friends and family

Children may want to isolate themselves if they’re having problems with their mental health. Try to encourage them to stay in touch with their friends and family members, whether it’s arranging an activity or speaking online/over the phone.

Support them with schoolwork

Poor mental health can affect a child’s ability to concentrate or perform well at school. Let your child know that that they can talk to you if they’re struggling, and that you can find ways to help. This might be sitting with them to support with homework, or speaking to their teacher and making them aware.

Contact their GP

If you’re concerned about the changes in your child’s behaviour, then visit a GP and discuss their symptoms. They might be able to work out what’s going on or refer you to someone who can help. This might be a counsellor, or a psychiatrist.

There are also lots of helpful organisations to turn to for support with your child’s mental health. These include Mind, YoungMinds and Place2Be.

Looking for more support? Our Family Mental HealthLine connects you with mental health nurses for advice and guidance about your child's mental wellbeing.

An image of Harriet and Danielle
Harriet Finlayson and Danielle Panton
Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa



Annie Fry, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

    • Mental health statistics. Young Minds., accessed April 2024
    • Child mental health. NSPCC Learning., updated January 2024
    • Types of mental health problems. Mind., published June 2020
    • Personality disorders. The Mix., updated January 2021
    • Parenting – looking after your own and your children’s mental health. Mental Health Foundation., accessed April 2024
    • Personal communication. Danielle Panton, Clinical Case Manager – Mental Health, Bupa UK. 19 April 2024

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