This page gives some basic information about some of the more common mental health issues affecting children which parents regularly contact Parentline about.

We always take the time to listen and talk through any worries and concerns you have if poor mental health – for any family member – is having an impact on your family’s health and happiness. We can help you think through the next steps to take, help you build strong relationships with your child and recommend any specialist organisations that could provide further advice and support.

If you think your child may be suffering from a mental health issue you should first seek help from your doctor, who can help you access the right support for your child.

Anxiety

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, unease, or nervousness. All of us will experience anxiety from time to time and sometimes a little stress can be helpful to ‘sharpen our senses.’ As an example think about how you feel before an exam or a job interview.

When anxiety lasts for weeks and months on end, when there is no obvious reason for it, or when it involves unrealistic worries, it can become harmful to health.

Most anxiety will eventually pass over time – but often young people will need support. Your relationship with your child can be the most important thing, and you can really help them by being sympathetic and supportive. Some of these tips may help.  

Depression

Learning that we all get sad from time to time is a natural part of growing up. But for some children, being down can become a permanent state of mind – and this is where it can tip into depression. Depression is a serious condition that negatively affects the way people think, feel and act. It is also common. The NHS lists a number of symptoms of depression

Fortunately, depression is also very treatable – and not just through medication. Many doctors these days will prefer to look at talking therapies such as counselling before prescribing anti-depressants. 

Most people recover from depression. Your relationship with your child and family relationships can be key. As a parent you can help your child by being supportive and sympathetic. Try some of these tips for helping with a mental health issue

Eating disorders

Eating disorders happen when children develop an unhealthy relationship with food, or use food to meet some need other than nourishment. They may develop abnormal ways of eating:

  • they may undereat or overeat
  • they may hide or hoard food,
  • or they may vomit or purge to rid their body of the food they’ve eaten.

Eating disorders usually refer to conditions such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. Both girls and boys can suffer from eating disorders. 

 

Things to ask

Many children go through periods when their behaviour around eating causes concern to adults. So it is very important to think through what is significant and what is a passing phase. Useful questions include:

  • Is the behaviour causing significant or potentially lasting harm to your child?
  • Is your child secretive about their eating behaviours? Do they hide the behaviour from you or other adults?
  • Is the behaviour persistent over time, or is it occasional?
  • Has something happened for your child or in your family that may have caused distress?

Eating disorders can often be accompanied by anxiety or depression. It is not clear whether one causes the other. If you think your child has an eating disorder help them seek medical help as soon as possible from your GP.

You can read more about eating disorders on the Mental Health Foundation website.

Self harm

Self harm is when someone intentionally damages or injures their body as an extreme way to cope with emotional distress. 

Finding that your child has been harming themselves is extremely upsetting and disturbing for a parent. It can bring up lots of hard feelings for you to cope with, as well as for your child. 

All you might be able to do is to keep talking to them. Keep the lines of communication open and your child may reveal their reasons for self harming over time.

Read our page Understanding self harm for more information about the common causes of self harm, and a few suggestions for how to respond, which parents tell us have helped.

To talk through some of the feelings you may have and for ongoing support for you and your child, please contact Parentline for confidential support.

Suicide and suicidal thoughts

No parent wants to believe that their child is thinking about suicide but if this is the situation you find yourself in, there is hope and support to help you help your child to make things better.

Sadly some children do reach this point of despair. Suicide is linked to many other mental health issues – particularly depression and self harm. 

While suicidal thoughts – considering or contemplating suicide – rarely lead to action, it is important to take your child seriously and encourage your child to talk about it.

It can be really disturbing for a parent to hear but if your child feels comfortable enough to talk to you about feeling suicidal that’s good thing. It means your child wants your support to help them through it.

 

What can help?

Parentline support staff have training in suicide prevention techniques. If you get in touch with a concern about your child feeling suicidal, we will usually advise you to talk honestly and openly to your child about it:

  1. Make sure you acknowledge how they feel. Don’t dismiss their words.
  2. Ask them directly if they are suicidal, do they want to take their own life?
  3. Ask if they have a plan?

Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us if you’re worried or need to talk.

Children being bullied may be particularly at risk of feeling suicidal if they feel they have ‘nowhere to turn’ to get away from the bullying. Read our  bullying page for more information.

Specialist organisations which can help with worries about suicide