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Recognizing the signs of a mental disorder in children

The first years of life are a critical period for the development of good mental health. For at least 70% of people with a mental disorder, it started during childhood or adolescence.

Mental disorders often develop gradually in young people and can be difficult to spot. It is important to be attentive to the symptoms in order to recognize problems as soon as they appear and be able to intervene early.

Signs and symptoms

Parents can detect changes in the mood or behaviour of their children that can potentially be signs of the emergence of a mental disorder. As a parent, pay attention to these changes:

  • Difficulty sleeping, or the opposite, sleeping all the time
  • Loss of appetite, or the opposite, eating a lot and uncontrollably
  • Low energy or, on the contrary, high agitation or sudden bursts of energy
  • Problems with concentration or memory
  • Repeated complaints about nausea, stomach aches or headaches
  • Constant mood swings, or excessive anger
  • Sadness, more frequent tears
  • Worries or fears that hinder them from engaging in their usual activities
  • Academic performance that is lower than usual
  • Seeming to avoid seeing their family and friends
  • Fears or exaggerated distrust of others
  • Lost of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Hitting or intimidating others, or voluntarily trying to inflict self-injury
  • Obsession with losing weight, or the opposite, neglecting their appearance
  • More concerns about their health
  • Seeming to have suicidal thoughts or talking about suicide

What to do

If your child shows some of the above signs and symptoms, do not worry and continue to observe them. Perhaps they are experiencing a problem that will last a few days only. It is not necessarily a sign that they have a mental disorder. Stay attentive, listen to them without prejudice and assure them that you are there to help.

Strategies and practices that reduce the risk of the onset or worsening of symptoms of mental disorders can be put in place, for example:

  • Ensure that your child is in a stable, consistent, predictable and reassuring environment.
  • Adopt age-appropriate positive educational practices This hyperlink will open in a new window..
  • Adopt a positive, warm style of communication focused on reinforcing your child's strengths.
  • Help your child develop their social skills, their problem-solving skills, to manage stress and control their emotional reactions and behaviour.
  • Encourage your child to get involved in social, sports and cultural activities.
  • Encourage your child to adopt healthy lifestyle habits (e.g., healthy diet, sufficient sleep, healthy screen use, etc.).

You can also follow the tips for maintaining good mental health.

When to consult

If you find that your child's mood and behaviour changes persist, are becoming more frequent and intense or significantly affect their functioning at home, at school or with their friends, consult a professional (family doctor, school worker or other professional).

Your involvement and that of adults who know your child well (e.g., a teacher or professional at school) will be important so that the healthcare professional who assesses your child can obtain information and collect observations about your child's behaviours, signs and symptoms in several areas of their life.

Also, before diagnosing a mental disorder, the doctor must first rule out any physical health problems that may be responsible for their symptoms (e.g., fatigue caused by hypothyroidism, hyperactivity caused by hyperthyroidism, behavioural changes caused by a concussion, etc.).

Help and resources

Information is available to understand mental disorders and the associated symptoms better.

To find resources that will offer support or to get care or services for your child's mental disorder symptoms, go to the page Finding mental health help and support resource.

Last update: November 24, 2023


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