Understanding children’s mental health


In this article:

  • Parents should check in often with their children about their feelings and emotions.

  • Stress and anxiety are a normal part of every child’s life, but it’s important to know when it’s more serious.

  • Mental health disorders in children can be treated more effectively when they are identified early.

Understanding children’s mental health

Most adults understand the value of looking after our mental health and emotional wellness. However, parents and caregivers might not always understand how to assess and care for the mental health and well-being of our children. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and a great time to discuss the importance of mental health care for children and adolescents.

“We all need to think about the mental health and emotional well-being of our kids and make sure that we're not missing any things that might need to be addressed,” says Elizabeth Meade, M.D., pediatrician and medical director of quality for pediatrics at Providence Swedish. “Catching and addressing mental health problems early on, at any stage of child development, can ensure your child gets the help they need.”

Fostering good mental health

When it comes to children’s mental health, Dr. Meade says that talking with your child about their feelings and emotions is important. She says checking in with them often and especially before times of intense stress, such as moving or important exams, can have a big impact. The idea is that if you listen when they tell you about the small things, they will tell you about the big things, too.

“Emotions should be a part of regular conversations with our kids,” says Dr. Meade. “They might not always want to talk to you, but it's important for them to know that you’re available when they do want to talk and that they can come to you with anything.”

Common mental health concerns

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that being mentally healthy during childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones, learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems. A child’s mental health impacts their quality of life as well as how they function at home and school.

In addition, the CDC describes mental health issues among children and young people as serious changes in how a child learns, behaves or feels emotionally. Common mental health disorders in children include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders and behavior disorders.

The good news is that with early intervention with the help of a mental health professional, many mental health conditions that impact children can be treated effectively. Improving your child’s mental health can take a village, and working with your child’s pediatrician, teacher and family members can help guide them to a better emotional state.

When to seek help

Dr. Meade says that stress and anxiety are a very normal part of childhood and adolescence. However, signs your child might be having a difficult time coping with stress, anxiety or another mental illness include:

  • Losing interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Diminished appetite or weight loss
  • Poor grades

If your children’s symptoms are serious, persistent and interfere with school, home, play or activities, you should let your child’s pediatrician or health care provider know.

“I tell parents to trust their gut,” says Dr. Meade. “If you feel like something is wrong or if you feel like something has really changed with your child, it's important to talk about that early and often.”

Contributing caregiver

Elizabeth Meade, M.D., pediatrician and medical director of quality for pediatrics at Providence Swedish

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Related resources

Wellness checkups ensure a healthy start to the school year

CDC: Behavior therapy before medication for kids with ADHD

Anxiety is real — learn what it is and how to cope

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.