Mental Health Warning Signs in Children and Adolescents


It’s not unusual for a child to show challenging behavior from time to time. But an untreated emotional issue can become a serious mental or behavioral problem and affect your child’s friendships, progress in school—even your family’s daily life. When considering if you should be concerned about your child’s behavior, the most important thing you can do is to learn more about the normal stages of your child’s development. Information about your child’s development can be found under the Development section of

If any of the signs below are happening more frequently, regularly or severely, you should talk to a doctor for a referral to a mental health professional as early as possible. They can help you and your child understand if the behavior is a normal part of your child’s healthy development or if your child has more serious mental or behavioral issues.

In younger children:

  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Excessive worrying
  • Sudden or intense fears (may be accompanied by fast heartbeat or breathing)
  • Avoiding friends and family; wanting to be alone
  • Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Sleep problems such as difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep or bed-wetting
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Changes or decline in school performance; bad grades despite trying hard
  • Refusing to go to daycare or school
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Difficulty concentrating or completing tasks
  • Frequent complaints about physical problems or ailments
  • Persistent disobedient or aggressive behavior; fighting

In older children and adolescents:

  • Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Changes in school performance, failing grades
  • Inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical problems
  • Defying authority, skipping school, stealing or damaging property
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Long-lasting negative mood, often along with poor appetite and thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger
  • Drastic changes in behavior or personality, mood swings
  • Excessive worrying
  • Withdrawal, avoiding family and friends
  • Sadness or hopelessness that lasts more than two weeks
  • Self-harming behaviors


If your child has said anything about suicide, or tried to self-harm or harm others, do not leave your child alone. Get immediate help from his or her doctor or the nearest hospital emergency room, or call 911. Remove any access he or she may have to firearms or other potential tools for suicide, including medications.

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255). For more information, go to

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