Depressed young woman.

Mental Health Red Flags for Children

With mental health concerns currently at an all time high for children of all ages, how do you know when to reach out for professional help for your kids?

The signs and symptoms of mental illness in children can be different than for adults. Children cannot necessarily express with words what is ailing them, and therefore may display their distress through behaviors.

What behaviors signal that it’s time to consult a mental health professional?


  • Developmental delays such as not walking between 10-14 months of age, not speaking by age 3, or speaking only with family members
  • An aversion to going places, doing activities or being around people; angry outbursts to avoid a task or refusing to change a routine; excessively clinging to a caregiver
  • Isolation from others, lack of energy or a change in sleeping patterns, a tendency to cry easily, problems coping with stress
  • Refusal to follow directions on a repeated basis
  • Yelling, hitting or other out-of-control behavior

School-Age Children:

  • Any evidence of learning disorders: difficulty naming colors, recognizing numbers 0-9, or learning the alphabet song by end of preschool; difficulty holding a pencil or crayon, learning or making letters, reciting the alphabet or counting out ten items by end of kindergarten, difficulty making sound-symbol associations by end of Grade 1
  • Excessive worry about many life events like natural disasters, robbers, getting sick or being away from home or caregiver
  • Feelings of sadness or withdrawal lasting at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Difficulty listening and following directions, chronic forgetfulness, problems completing routine daily tasks, struggles following completing two or three step commands


  • Excessive worry about not finishing assignments on time, or over-focused on other’s views about them, fear of making mistakes or trying new activities or difficulty making decisions
  • Avoiding or refusing to participate in usually interesting activities
  • Excessively checking, and rechecking their work
  • Difficulty letting go of mistakes or excessive self-consciousness
  • Sudden changes in mood or interaction with family or friends
  • Any self-harm, such as cutting or burning; a drop in grades, changes in sleep patterns, chronic irritability, apathy and disengagement from daily activities
  • Changes in typical behavior: increase in disruptive fighting and argumentativeness
  • Preoccupation with food, weight or body image or changes in eating patterns.
  • Dropping grades, increased secretiveness about friends and where they are going or evidence of drug use

By Maria T. Aranda Ph.D.

Dr. Aranda is a licensed clinical psychologist. More information about her can be found at

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