How to Gauge Your Child’s Mental Health


Most parents probably have gauging their child’s physical health down to an art. Out-of-place behavior usually means something’s wrong or about to be, whether it’s the common cold, a stomach bug or seasonal allergies.

But what about mental health? Do you know how to best check and ensure your child’s emotional, mental and psychological needs are being met, too?

Here are a few things to do, look for and ask your child, so you can better gauge whether their behavior is just plain teenage moodiness or an adolescent tantrum, or something more serious.

Know the Mental Health Disorders Your Child is at Risk for, and How to Recognize Them

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are a few mental health disorders that are common in children, including anxiety, depression, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, ADHD, Tourette syndrome, OCD and PTSD. You can learn more about the individual symptoms and causes of these disorders in children, on the CDC website.

However, beyond actual mental health disorders, just like adults, children can experience overall, general poor mental health, if they don’t receive the proper care and outlets.

Look Out for Signs of Poor Mental Health

Do you notice your child isn’t sleeping well? Are they complaining of stomach problems or headaches? Is their attention span shorter than normal? Are they having more outbursts than normal?

If you notice one of these signs of poor mental health, it may be a signal that something deeper is going on, or just that your child is having a general overall period of poor mental health (it happens to all of us).

Ask the Right Questions

Even if you don’t notice any of these signs, you can do a simple check in with your child, to see if you uncover any potential problems.

Ask them if they feel particularly worried or scared about anything. Ask if they feel sad or upset. Ask them how their relationships are going, at school or with friends. Ask them, in general, how life is going and if they’re happy. Ask them what they’re excited about currently, or if they’re looking forward to anything.

If your child is older, you might ask them their feelings on current events. You might also ask them what they think of others’ behaviors or feelings, whether that’s a family member you both know is having a rough time, or a favorite celebrity that may have opened up about sensitive topics, from sexuality to substance abuse.

You may need to get more specific in order to uncover a root issue, but these questions are a good place to start. If you find that your child is having difficulty opening up, begin with commenting on your own feelings and thoughts. Sometimes just hearing a parent say, “You know, I’ve been feeling kind of sad lately and I’m not sure why,” is enough to prompt a child to speak up, as they realize talking about those kinds of feelings is okay.

Make Sure You’re Doing Your Part

Even if you determine your child’s mental health is likely fine, you still want to ensure that you’re doing your part to support their mental health, regardless of their age.

Do your best to create a home life environment that puts acceptance, love and compassion first. Make it clear that your child is safe and supported when at home. Model proper coping habits and self care in your own life.

Look into your child’s school and recreational environments and ensure that they’re as safe and nurturing as possible, too.

If you worry that bad family habits — from inactivity to too much screen time to poor diet — could be affecting your child’s mental health, do your best to break those bad habits for the entire family.

Reach Out for Help When You Need It

But sometimes a parent just can’t do it all on their own. If you need more help, reach out to the professionals. You can likely find experts in adolescent mental health at your child’s school. You may also find it useful to speak with a therapist or simply your child’s pediatrician, to discuss any concerns and get more advice.

Whatever you do, don’t leave your child’s mental health to chance. You can have a positive impact and help set them up for success now and in adulthood.