Signs your child may be suffering from mental health issues

Three out of four children with mental health disorders aren’t accessing professional help, but how can you tell if your child is having problems?

During this week’s International Men’s Health Week, Professor Harriet Hiscock of Murdoch Children's Research Institute explained to Yahoo News the “red flags” parents can look for to determine if a child may be suffering from a mental illness.

According to research conducted by Professor Hiscock and Dr Melissa Mulraney, about 14 per cent of kids aged 4 to 17 meet criteria for having one or more mental illnesses.

Of these children, only one in four was found to be receiving help.

The research surveyed 5000 children aged 8 to 13.

Determining if a child has a mental illness “varies by age”, Professor Hiscock said.

Pictured is a boy seated, distressed with his head in his hands. Research conducted by Murdoch Children's Research Institute found three out of four kids with a mental illness aren't getting help.
A survey found only one in four children living with a mental illness are getting the necessary care they need, according to research by Murdoch Children's Research Institute. Source: Getty Images (file pic)

Young children

Children express emotions and process traumatic events in different ways than adults do. It can make it more difficult to recognise if a child has a mental illness.

Kids in primary school, especially those in Years 1 or 2, generally suffer separation anxiety and may cry on their way to school.

Anxiety was found to be the most common mental health issue affecting Australian children.

“A red flag is when the behaviour is persistent,” Professor Hiscock said.

“For example - if they are still crying on the way to school after term one.

“It’s when these behaviours are persistent and turn from weeks into months that a child might have anxiety.”

A file picture of a mum cuddling her little boy. An academic has revealed mental health warning signs for children.
About 14 per cent of children aged 8 to 13 have one or more mental health issues. Source: Getty Images (file pic)

Professor Hiscock said there isn’t really “too young” an age for a child to begin to show signs of a mental health disorder.

Kids in preschool might be at risk of developing a mental illness if they show signs of aggression – such as continuously hitting other children.

Other key indications of anxiety are if a child is having ongoing physical headaches and or abdominal pain. They also might be irritable and have trouble sitting still.

However, just because your child wants to stay by your side doesn’t necessarily mean they have a mental illness.

According to Dr Liz Westrupp at Deakin University, children are “socially and biologically programmed” to have strong bonds with their parents.

It’s when any behaviour is ongoing over a long period of time in which action should be considered.

A boy in school uniform walks with his dad in a stock photo.
Children can suffer separation anxiety from their parents but it's when behaviour is persistent over months that could indicate more serious issues. Source: Getty Images (file pic)


Teenagers can be tricky as behaviour can be “up and down”.

“Older kids might show a change in appetite or in their sleeping patterns,” Professor Hiscock said.

“If a teen is sleeping all the time, or not sleeping at all, that could be an indicator of mental illness.”

Dr Hiscock added other alarm bells including if a teen is constantly irritable or doesn’t want to spend time with their friends.

“It’s when there’s a loss of enjoyment in things they enjoy, or when their behaviour clearly affects their ability to function,” she said.


Research showed boys and girls have different ways of expressing mental health issues.

Girls were found less likely to access mental health care than boys as their mental health problems were “harder to detect”.

Professor Hiscock and Dr Mulraney wrote “boys are more likely to externalise problems such as anxiety by reacting angrily when asked to do something that upsets them” while “girls are more likely to internalise these issues by withdrawing or appearing very quiet”.

A teenage girl buries her head in her hands while wearing a hoodie. Girls were found to internalise their problems and withdraw becoming quiet.
Girls were found to internalise issues by withdrawing, according to research. Source: Getty Images (file pic)

Dealing with mental health issues

Getting angry at your child won’t help them though Professor Hiscock said she understands the frustration many might feel.

For young children, it’s important to be clear and open with them.

“If you’re dropping your child off at school explain what you’re planning on doing - when and where you’re picking them up and at what time,” Professor Hiscock said.

“If there are ongoing issues with a child - speak to your GP about the next course of action.”

Teens can be “really hard” especially if they are unwilling to open up.

But Dr Hiscock said parents “can’t give up”.

“Speak to a counsellor or teacher if you have to buy also try to keep talking to them,” she said.

“You can also suggest they go online to Beyond Blue.”

Anyone seeking help for youth mental health concerns can contact Headspace on 03 9027 0100, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.

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