Signs your child is struggling with their mental health

Mental health and wellbeing was the top reason for children accessing Childline, new research reveals. (Getty Images)
Mental health and wellbeing was the top reason for children accessing Childline, new research reveals. (Getty Images)

Thousands of parents whose children struggling with mental health health issues are turning to a charity for help, new research has suggested.

Figures from Young Minds show 13,228 people contacted the charity’s parent helpline from January 1 to December 8 last year, while an extra 2,829 carers needed urgent crisis support.

The main topics parents have needed support with are their child’s anxiety, anger, depression and low mood, behaviour and autism.

Overall, the number of people contacting the Young Minds helpline is up slightly on pre-pandemic figures. In 2019, where 12,027 people sought guidance.

That echoes further research hinting that children are still feeling the effects of lockdown, with one in five battling mental health issues — almost double the number 20 years ago.

Two decades ago just one in nine children were assessed as having a clinically recognisable mental health problem, but according to a study, by the Centre for Social Justice that figure is now one in five, rising to nearly one in four for those aged 17-19.

If trends continue, the report estimates that by 2030 over one in four five to 15-year-olds, which may be as many as 2.3 million children, could have a mental disorder.

The report comes as it was revealed mental health and emotional wellbeing was the top reason for children seeking help from Childline, accounting for over half of the counselling sessions delivered by the service.

The NSPCC, which runs the service, delivered 105,000 counselling sessions in 2022/23 where this was the child's main concern, with 31,000 of the counselling sessions on mental health being about stress and anxiety, while more than 14,000 children were counselled about low mood and unhappiness.

Further research found that almost three-quarters of parents are concerned about their children's mental health.

But how can parents spot if their child is struggling?

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Signs and symptoms that could indicate a mental health struggle

1. Increased alone-time

"Look out for a child that isolates themselves, and a constant low mood and lack of energy that may manifest in struggling to do anything other than the minimum they have to do every day," explains Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, child and adolescent psychiatrist based at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford.

2. Lack of motivation

Dr van Zwanenberg also recommends parents look out for their child’s dwindling motivation such as abandoning extra-curricular activities and hobbies. "And negative thoughts like: 'I’m a boring person and rubbish at everything'."

3. Changes in behaviour and eating habits

According to Dr van Zwanenberg, some depressed children may also show changes in appetite (either not hungry or comfort-eating) and poor concentration.

"Thinking, 'I’m rubbish, I deserve to suffer, I cannot take this anymore', or, 'I’m going to let everyone down', is common," she continues.

4. Sleeping more – or less

"Changes in sleep patterns can also be an indicator your child is struggling with their mental health," Dr van Zwanenberg explains.

5. Gut instinct

Mental health counsellor, Lynn Crilly advises parents to listen to their gut if they think something is wrong. "If you feel that there is something ‘amiss’ with a young person you know then there is likely to be a good reason for that instinct," she says.

6. Losing interest in their favourite things

"It could be a sport, a TV programme they have always enjoyed, playing a musical instrument or even hanging out with friends," explains Crilly. "This extremely common sign is usually one of the first to appear."

Three quarters of parents are concerned about their child's mental health. (Getty Images)
Three quarters of parents are concerned about their child's mental health. (Getty Images)

How to talk to children about their mental health

1. Encourage them to open up

Asking them to share in a way they feel happy with is key. “They could text their thoughts to you, write them down, or talk to you about them when feeling calm,” says Dr van Zwanenberg.

2. Ask them again

The simple act of asking again how they are feeling shows a genuine willingness to talk and listen. “Our research shows that asking ‘Are you ok?’ is often not enough,” explains Jo Loughran, from Beech Hill Consulting. "Asking twice is a simple, effective way to show that you’re asking for real and ready to talk and listen"”

3. Talk side-by-side, rather than face-to-face

“Talking when shopping, cooking or driving can take the pressure off – you don’t have to have a formal sit-down conversation,” suggests Loughran.

4. Talk about your own mental health

Discuss your own mental health issues and battles. "Being open about your own mental health shows your child it’s ok to be open too," Loughran says.

5. Ask them what might help

Often, the most helpful thing you can do is ask your child what they think might help them feel better, suggests Dr van Zwanenberg. "Ask them how they would like you to support them," she says. "It might be they just want hugs, distraction such as watching a film with you or not to be left alone at night-time."

6. Show them the bigger picture

According to Dr van Zwanenberg, it is important to contextualise the issue for them, as they might not understand their feelings.

"Calmly explain they might be depressed and that the issue is treatable, but that you understand it is a horrible place to be when you are suffering with it," she says.

"Reassure them with statistics, such as the fact that one in 10 young people have a diagnosable mental illness at any one time, and depression is very common," she adds.

Encouraging your child to open up about their mental health is key (Getty Images)
Encouraging your child to open up about their mental health is key (Getty Images)

7. Try to stay calm

The most important thing you can do is keep your cool. "If you need to discuss what they tell you with another family member or friend for your own support, ensure the young person does not feel their confidence is being broken," Dr van Zwanenberg says.

8. Try the distraction method

If your child is suffering intense stress, it could help to distract and divert. Dr van Zwanenberg suggests watching a film together, reading a funny book, watching humorous clips on the internet or looking at old photos of yourself or them as a baby.

9. Encourage your child to ‘stop their thought train and get off it’

Dr van Zwanenberg suggests encouraging children to build a brick wall, metaphorically, between themselves and their stressful thoughts. "Urge them not to think about their worries except for short periods, say 10 minutes morning and night," she says.

"Get your child to think of a relaxing memory as a safe place to go to in their head,” she continues. "Ask them to describe it to you in detail, including the sounds, smells, lights, textures, the conversations, the emotions they remember. This can help them relax and distract them from their worries, and, with practice, they can take themselves back there in their head at times of stress."

10. Seek help early on

Depression is a very difficult illness, but it is treatable, and the earlier treatment is accessed, the better.

The NHS has some further advice on helping children with mental health concerns.

Childline can be accessed via or by calling 0800 11 11.

This article was first published in May 2022 and has been updated.

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