The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines children’s mental health as “reaching developmental and emotional milestones, and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems.” Mentally healthy children are described as having a positive quality of life and can function well at home, work, in school, and in their communities.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between challenging behaviors and emotions that are a natural part of child development and those that are cause for concern. Among children, mental health disorders are described as significant changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions, which interfere with functioning at home, school, or with friends. It is important to note that if a child’s behavior is unsafe, or if a child talks about harming themselves or others, help should be sought immediately.  

Common mental health disorders that can be diagnosed in children include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, and behavior disorders. Signs and symptoms of mental health challenges in children include:

  • Wants to be alone all the time; has difficulty making friends
  • Experiences frequent tantrums
  • Feels overly anxious or worried
  • Is scared and fearful; has frequent nightmares
  • Has major changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Experiences frequent stomachaches or headaches with no known medical cause
  • Repeats actions or check things often out of fear something bad may happen
  • Struggles academically
  • Can’t concentrate, sit still, or focus attention

If you are concerned about your child, begin by talking with your child’s teacher and other caregivers to see if they have noticed changes in behavior. Discuss your child’s behavior with their pediatrician; describing what you and others have observed. Ask the pediatrician for a referral to a mental health professional who has expertise in working with children. There is a variety of support options available including talk therapy, family counseling, support for parents, and medication when appropriate. (link text to resource page)

It's important for parents to be role models by talking about their own feelings, modeling self-regulation, and using active problem-solving skills. Reassure your child that everyone experiences difficult emotions such as fear, sadness, worry and anger and that these emotions are a natural part of life. Encourage your child to talk about and express their emotions.