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Does My Child or Teen Need Mental Health Support?

How many times have you heard this?

“She’s just so moody.” “It’s just a phase they’re going through.”

When we were teens, our behaviors or mood swings were simply written off as “being a teenager”, “out of sorts”, or “growing pains.”  It may not have been till years later that we were finally diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or, with help, finally understood that we were simply reacting to stress at school or at home.

Right now, the pandemic has taken an enormous toll on everyone, with a particularly hard impact on mental health, especially that of young people. The fact is that mental health insurance claims for US teens roughly doubled early in the COVID-19 pandemic over the same period in 2019, according to a report released in early March 2021.

Young people are particularly susceptible because of school closures and distance learning, the inability to interact with friends, added stress, and loneliness. Whether it’s the loss of connection to friends or the new 24/7 living in close quarters with family – it all adds to the normal stressors that simply go along with growing up.

“There is a role for every one of us in supporting youth mental health. The rates of poor mental health for young people are rising at alarming levels, according to many studies including the CDC and Monitoring the Future,” says Ronna Yablonski, Senior Director of SAFE Choices, a student-driven outreach and prevention program empowering youth in schools and communities. “There are many contributing factors, but the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the circumstances.”

What’s the best thing we can do to protect our children and teens? Yablonski says the leading protective factor is to help them build healthy connections and strong bonds and relationships with adults and peers at school, in the family, and in the community. “Kids and teens are not immune from mental challenges and disorders. When occurring simultaneously with a substance use disorder, it is referred to as co-occurring disorders, comorbid disorders, or a dual diagnosis. Early recognition and professional help can lead to successful treatment and full recovery.”

Parents can also touch base with teachers, school counselors, or your daycare provider to see what they are noticing. Your child’s medical provider is often a good starting point for what to do, but many other resources are a phone call away.

At different ages, your child, teen, or young adult can demonstrate different symptoms that could indicate they may need help. Below, we’ve outlined some signs to look for, but remember that everything doesn’t fit neatly into a list. Trust your gut.

Teenagers (12-18) and/or Young Adults

  • Has an issue in overlapping areas of life, such as family relationships, school performance, sports, recreational activities, or friendships.
  • Withdraws from family, friends, or activities they used to enjoy. (NOTE: Given the current restrictions on social gatherings and school, this may be hard to determine.)
  • Feels bad about themself, less confident, or less effective.
  • Decreased ability to concentrate.
  • Excessive worry about the future or hopelessness.
  • Talks about or engages in any kind of self-harm.
  • Makes comments like “I wish I weren’t here,” or “Nobody would care if I ran away.”
  • Has a significant increase OR decrease in sleep habits or appetite
  • Engaging in repetitive behaviors or doing things a certain way.
  • Repetitive, self-destructive behaviors such as hair-pulling or skin-picking.
  • Talks explicitly about suicide self-harm, or makes other threats.
  • Any issue that interferes with their daily lives, their daily functioning, or is persistent.

Younger Children (5-12)

  • Health complaints can include frequent stomach aches, headaches, and unexplained muscle aches and pains.
  • Changes in eating, sleeping, energy, or physical complaints of headaches or stomach aches.
  • Anger, irritability, or frequent meltdowns.
  • Sadness: including clingy behavior, frequent crying, or feeling overwhelmed.
  • Repeated questions about their own safety, or that of family or friends.
  • Any issue that interferes with their daily lives, their daily functioning, or is persistent.

Lessons Learned: 5 Things to Remember

  1. Prepare to Listen: Check out our Lessons Learned on how to prepare to talk to your teen, and how to listen.
  2. Pick the Right Time, not when they are dealing with schoolwork or when either or both of you are tense.
  3. Easy Conversation Starters:  “I see you’ve been struggling lately“ or  “I see this is hard for you.”
  4. Don’t ask, “What’s wrong?” It can make kids of all ages freeze up, so the likely response will be, “Nothing.”  That builds a wall.
  5. Don’t be the Fixer:  it’s common for parents to want to jump in and fix the problem – especially with teens. Don’t try to tell them how to fix what’s bothering them unless they specifically ask you for advice.


National Hotlines:

SAMHSA’s National Helpline1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889  confidential, free, 24/7 information service, in English and Spanish, for those facing mental and/or substance use disorders.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) provides information on prevention, treatment, and symptoms of anxiety, depression, and related conditions (240-485-1001)

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers trained crisis counselors (800-273-8255)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Live Online Chat

If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, contact the Crisis Text Line: Text SUPPORT to 741-741

To Learn More:

Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA): Talk to Your Anxious Child OR Teen About Coronavirus

Child Mind Institute: Signs of Depression During the Pandemic

Connecticut Childrens Hospital: Signs Your Child Might Be Depressed or Anxious – and What to Do Next

Mental Health America (MHA): Children’s Mental Health Matters

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

Society of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology: Advice for Selecting a Psychologist When Is It Time To Get My Child Help For Mental Health Issues?

Learn More