Mental illnesses and behavioral disorders in youth: Common signs to look out for

May 26, 2021

Mental health conditions can vary based on each person. We are all unique and have different experiences, so it can be hard to see when someone is truly struggling. For young children, the signs can be even harder to notice.

However, children are less likely to receive the help they need—often because many parents or caretakers may not realize their child is suffering. Young children are often expected to “grow out of” certain bad behaviors. Yet early intervention, and early treatment, can make a lifetime of difference to a young child.

Help is Here has identified some of the most common signs of early mental illness and behavioral disorders:

Preschool/Early Elementary

Some common signs to look for at this age are:

  • Behavior problems in preschool or daycare
  • Hyperactivity or fidgeting
  • Trouble sleeping and lots of nightmares
  • Excessive fear, worrying, or crying
  • Extreme disobedience or aggression—more than the normal amount
  • Lots of temper tantrums all the time
  • Persistent difficulty separating from a parent

Grade School Years

Kids at this age begin to develop their own relationships as they move through school. Looking at their friendships could be a good way for parents to gauge their child’s well-being. Other signs at this stage include:

  • Spending less time with friends or changing relationships
  • Problems in school
  • Dip in grades or trouble with schoolwork
  • Changes in weight or appetite
  • Excessive concern with appearance
  • Visibly sad or distressed all the time

Tween and Teen Years

The tween and teen years can be difficult as kids begin to go through puberty and the associated changes to their body. It can also be hard for teens to learn to navigate their impending adulthood as they get ready for college and “leaving the nest.”

As kids continue to grow, the signs shared above may continue or start to grow worse if left untreated. Some concerning signs at this age also include:

  • Destructive behavior—damaging property, setting fires, or vandalism
  • Threatening to or constantly running away
  • Self-harming behavior, such as cutting, scratching, or burning themselves
  • Extreme eating habits—binge eating or self-starvation
  • Comments or writing about harming themselves or others
  • Withdrawing from family and friends

It can be hard to know when a child is suffering, but knowing what to look for is the first step in ensuring kids get the help they need. 

Visit our Help is Here Mental Health Directory to find national, state and local resources.

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