What to Do When You’re Worried About Your Child’s Mental Health

If you’re a parent concerned about your children’s mental health, you aren’t alone. Here, we’ll take a look at what parents need to know about children’s mental health, including signs that your child may be struggling.

Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC By Greg Lozano, LPC

Updated on May 01, 2024

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If you have concerns about your child’s mental health, you are far from alone. Parenting is hard enough, but these past few years of living through a pandemic have brought so much extra stress to our lives and our kids’ lives. Many parents are worried about their child’s mental health and are looking for actionable ways to help their children feel better.

Here, we’ll take a look at what parents need to know about children’s mental health, including signs that your child may be struggling, what to do if you’re worried about your child’s mental health, mental health services available for children, and what you can do at home to support your child and yourself.

Understanding Children’s Mental Health

There’s no doubt that there’s a looming mental health crisis among children right now. According to the CDC, even before the pandemic, children were experiencing increased mental health issues. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System found that in the decade just prior to the pandemic, depression, feelings of hopelessness, and suicide ideation had all increased by 40%.

The pandemic exacerbated these problems substantially, leading organizations like the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) to declare an emergency in mental health among young people at the height of the pandemic, in late 2021. 

Therapists across the U.S. have seen this crisis play out in real time. Andrea Mann, LMHC, RPT, licensed mental health counselor and registered play therapist with Grow Therapy, says that she’s seen an uptick in mental health concerns across all age spectrum. “No one got through that pandemic without trauma, including children,” Mann says. “Young kids seem to be struggling with social-emotional skills while older kids/adolescents seem to be struggling with sustained connection and identity issues.”

As children have struggled, parents have worried. A Pew study conducted in the fall of 2022 found that among parents, their children’s mental health problems were their top concern. According to the poll, four out of 10 parents say that they are “extremely” or “very worried” that their children would face a bout of anxiety or depression. For these parents, concerns about their children’s mental health took precedence over other concerns, including bullying, getting kidnapped, being physically attacked, or having a substance abuse problem.

Signs That Your Child May Be Struggling With Mental Health Issues

One of the struggles parents face is being able to recognize whether their child is having an issue or not. All children have difficult days and weeks. It’s normal for children to struggle as they move through developmental changes and transitions, such as starting school or going through puberty. But many parents feel unsure about whether their child is facing a typical childhood challenge or a mental health disorder.

As Shannon Davis, LPC, licensed professional counselor at Hope Within Counseling, describes, signs that your child may be struggling with a mental health condition include exhibiting feelings of hopelessness, trouble sleeping, wanting to be alone for long periods of time, and seeming very withdrawn. You can also watch for changes in behavior, such as not wanting to socialize with friends, getting in trouble frequently at school, and overthinking everyday tasks.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, other signs that your child may be struggling with a mental health condition, rather than just going through a rough patch include:

There are many mental health conditions that can affect children. Common mental health conditions among children, according to the National Institute of Mental Health include:

Taking Action: What to Do About Your Child’s Mental Health

If you have any worries about your child’s mental health, the first thing to do is try to talk to them about it. This isn’t always easy, of course, and it’s quite possible that it will take some time for your child to open up to you about their struggles.

One of the best ways to approach this is to set aside some of life’s distractions (work emails, housework, your phone) for a little while and give your child your undivided attention, says Mann. She suggests trying to engage with your child, which doesn’t necessarily even mean talking about what’s bothering them.

Sometimes it’s as easy as taking an interest in what they’re interested in currently,” she says. “Get them to show you how to play a game or how to do an art project.” The key is to really engage with your child fully — to be in the moment with them. “Even if your kid isn’t ready to talk about it, they will know that you want to connect and they are more likely to use that connection as a resource,” Mann says.

Seeking Professional Help: Finding the Right Mental Health Provider

Having a parent to talk to (when and if they are ready) is valuable, but for kids who are showing signs of a mental health issue, getting professional help is vital. Parents often struggle with how to go about this, and where to find the help that they need.

Your pediatrician is a good person to start with. They know your child’s history and can help you understand your child’s mental health needs. They can also recommend a mental health provider in the community who can help your child. Another resource is your child’s school. School psychologists and counselors can help your child during school, and also recommend mental health professionals to help your child outside of school.

Choosing a mental health provider for your child can be difficult at first, says Davis, but most providers will let you have a “getting to know you” session, which can help you and your child figure out if the provider is a good fit. “I suggest parent and child read the therapist’s online profile together and schedule a 15-minute consultation,” Davis suggests. “This will include the child in the process and help them feel empowered.” 

Resources for Parents: Government Programs and Support Services

Sometimes parents are able to find a mental health provider for their children by recommendations from pediatricians, school counselors, word of mouth, or by getting a list of providers from their insurance companies. But sometimes these methods don’t work, or insurance doesn’t have enough available providers covered, and parents are looking for more assistance getting their children the help they need.

Some other resources for children’s mental health services include:

Immediate Help

Sometimes the mental health care your child needs is immediate. If your child is in any kind of danger, has hurt themselves, or is thinking about hurting themselves, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Other resources include the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741) or the Lifeline Chat at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.

Strategies for Supporting Your Child’s Mental Health at Home

Whether or not your child is in therapy, supporting your child’s mental health at home is important. After all, your child spends a great deal of time at home, and whenever possible, home should be a safe space for your child to express their feelings and recover from the stresses of their school life and social life.

Still, parents may not know how best to support their children at home, especially when their children continue to show signs of distress at home or seem resistant to help from their parents.

Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment for Your Child

The first thing you can do is work on making sure your home is a secure and reassuring space. How to accomplish this depends on the needs of your child, says Mann. “Generally, a space free from judgment, ridicule, or praise is what children are seeking,” she says. Keeping your home a judgment-free zone means focusing on encouragement more than anything else, and fostering a growth mindset. “Let your kid know that they can do hard things, and you recognize that,” Mann suggests.

Encouraging Open Communication About Mental Health

When kids are struggling, parents often don’t know how to approach discussions about mental health with their children. They may feel uncomfortable themselves about broaching these subjects, and they may not feel equipped to talk about these difficult topics.

The first step, says Davis, is simply to understand the needs of your child right now. Make sure you are thinking about what your child needs, and not what you need as a parent. Then, it’s all about being as transparent and non-judgmental as possible. “It is important to have open and honest dialogue about what issues the child is dealing with,” David suggests.

Mann says that parents tend to overanalyze the discussions they want to have with their kids about mental health. “Just talk to them,” she recommends. “Children aren’t stupid; they understand a lot more than we give them credit for.”

It can also feel difficult to introduce your child to the idea of seeing a therapist, but keeping things straightforward and simple can help. You can say something like, “This is a new person who is going to play with you and hang out with you and who is going to help you understand yourself better,” Mann suggests.

Self-Care for Parents: Taking Care of Your Own Mental Health

You can’t care for others if you aren’t caring for yourself. That means it’s vital for parents to engage in self-care as they care for their child’s mental health. “Self-care is unique to everyone,” Davis says. “For some, reading a book, drawing, or journaling is self-care. For others, it may look totally different.” She encourages parents to think about what self-care means for them — whether it’s getting a massage, taking a walk or hike, doing some yoga — and prioritizing that.

For some parents, going to therapy themselves is the right course of action during a period when their children are struggling, says Mann. “Your life will change with your child’s,” she says. “Therapy can help you learn how to be kind to yourself, and how to stop the anxious ruminations that come from just being a parent.”

Hope and Help for Families Dealing With Children’s Mental Health Issues

Managing your child’s mental health can feel isolating and heartbreaking. Mann wants parents to know that these feelings are normal. “Working through issues might be challenging, frustrating, even downright overwhelming at times,” she says. But she encourages parents not to give up. “The reason it is hard is because something (or a few things) need to change,” she says. “You, your child, and your family don’t get better without going through difficulties.” 

Remember that although you may feel you are alone in your struggles, you aren’t. So many parents are in the same boat as you right now. Most importantly, support is out there for your child, and for you. There is light at the end of the tunnel, so keep the faith, and allow yourself to have hope. 

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC Greg Lozano, LPC

Greg Lozano is a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in working with individuals with severe mental illnesses such as depressive, bipolar, schizophrenia, and substance abuse conditions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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