Signs & Symptoms

Children and youth mental health: signs and symptoms

Learn how to identify when a child or youth may need mental health support.

  1. Mental health in children and youth
  2. Signs of a mental illness
  3. Mental health disorders
  4. What parents can do

Mental health in children and youth

Approximately 1 in 5 children and youth in Ontario has a mental health challenge. About 70% of mental health challenges have their onset in childhood or youth.  That’s why early identification and intervention is so critical and can lead to improved achievement in school and better health outcomes in life.  Find more general mental health resources through this ONLINE TOOLKIT.

Signs of a mental illness:

Many children and youth will exhibit different moods, thoughts and behaviours at various times that can be part of normal childhood development. These include:

  • getting significantly lower marks in school
  • avoiding friends and family
  • having frequent outbursts of anger
  • changes to sleeping or eating habits
  • acting out or rebelling against authority
  • drinking a lot and/or using drugs
  • not doing the things he or she used to enjoy
  • worrying constantly
  • experiencing frequent mood swings
  • not concerned with his or her appearance
  • obsessed with his or her weight
  • lacking energy or motivation
  • increased risk-taking behaviour
  • feeling very down

Video: normal actions or a mental health concern

But these characteristics and behaviours may be signs of an underlying mental health concern or disorder if they:

  • are intense
  • persist over long periods of time
  • are inappropriate for the child's age
  • interfere with the child's life

Video: how to spot the signs of a mental health concern

Mental health disorders:

Some of the most common disorders among children and youth include:

  • anxiety
  • attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — also known as attention deficit disorder (ADD)
  • depression and other mood disorders
  • schizophrenia
  • eating disorders

When children and youth have a physical illness or injury, parents seek professional help and get them the medical attention they need. When children and youth have symptoms of a mental illness, they need their parents to respond in the same way.

Most mental health issues of adulthood have their beginnings in these earlier years. Remember, it’s important to pay attention to early signs and symptoms and get help soon.

What parents/caregivers can do:

Listen to your instincts if you are worried about your child. Collect as much information as you can. You are probably in the best position to know if your child’s behaviour requires further attention. Arrange to meet with a well-trained and trusted professional.

It can be confusing trying to tell the difference between symptoms of mental illness and normal challenges that all kids experience from time to time. As parents, you can use observable behaviours to help decide what action you need to take by:

  • circling the behaviours from the list that concern you (especially those lasting a few weeks or more)
  • speak to your child regarding your main concerns (no more than 3 and keep it brief)
  • listen to their response for an uninterrupted 3 minutes if you can
  • let your child know you will help work out difficult issues together

Arrange to meet with a trusted and trained professional to discuss your concerns and how to access help. You don’t have to do this alone. Help is available.