According to statistics, 1 out of every 5 children will confront some form of mental, emotional, or behavioral health obstacle before they reach legal adulthood at age 18. This staggering number can be jarring for parents and professionals whose job it is to ensure healthy, happy children through mental, social, and emotional development. What is more concerning, however, is the likelihood that, for many children and teens, a mental health diagnosis will go unresolved or even unnoticed.
There are many, many warning signs that adults need to look out for; however, as we always say, every child is different. This means that symptoms, concerning behaviors, and coping mechanisms will vary from child to child. Furthermore, a child or teen’s symptoms can change or fluctuate in severity as time goes on without treatment.
For parents and adults that work with children and adolescents, it is imperative to be aware of the various “red flags,” because for mental health concerns, early detection and treatment is imperative.
Early-warning signs of a mental health problem in children and adolescents:
- Nervousness or separation anxiety when parents or primary guardians are not around
- School avoidance/refusal and/or feigning illness to avoid going to school
- Noticeable decline in grades, work ethic, academic perseverance, etc.
- Complaints of pain, spontaneous injuries, or inexplicable ailments
- Noticeable, prolonged shift in sleeping patterns
- Significant change in eating and/or exercise habits
- Experimentation with drugs or alcohol
- An interest in lewd or vulgar content of a sexual nature
- Extreme lethargy or depressed mood for lengths of time
- Claims that he/she believes himself to be worthless, inferior, or disappointing
- Claims that all efforts are pointless and that failure is inevitable
- Jokes or subtle remarks involving self-injurious tendencies or behaviors
Teenage angst vs. warning signs
The struggle that many parents go through is that several of the instances mentioned above may sound all too familiar. Children and adolescents will inevitably experience various levels of stress, anxiety, and obstinate or combative behavior as they mature into young adults. The difference, however, for a child who is perhaps “going through a phase” and one who is at risk of a mental health issue depends on a few notable markers.
There could be an issue if:
- The child has gained or lost weight rapidly
- The child is irritable, fatigued, or lethargic most days due to consecutive weeks of poor/restless sleep
- The child abruptly stops socializing with “best friends” or suddenly withdraws from hobbies and activities that he/she typically enjoys
- The child experiences a level of anxiety or nervousness that discourages her from different activities and experiences that she typically enjoys
- The child’s behavior has negatively impacted other family members or caused distress over several weeks
- The child’s negative behavior or emotions have gotten more intense/disruptive and occur more days than not
- The child has experienced a traumatic event in recent weeks/months involving the death of a family member/friend, a serious illness or disability, a severe injury or accident, or divorce, etc.
- The child refuses to eat in front of friends or family members; he/she stashes or hides food; eating has become a shameful or private task
- The child wears clothing that is not appropriate for the weather; i.e. a sweatshirt in August