Causes of mental health issues in children

Information and advice on the causes of mental health issues in children

For some children the stresses they face can cause serious issues, such as depression, anxiety, self harm or eating disorders. There is no clear reason why some children develop mental health issues, but some things, like being exposed to traumatic experiences, can make it more likely.

Traumatic experiences for a child might include: 

Seeing your child suffering in any way, is hugely distressing. Understandably parents want to ‘fix’ anything that causes their child pain. When it comes to mental health and wellbeing there might not be an immediate solution. The most important first step is to try and understand your child.

Building coping skills

The relationship you have with your child is central to their emotional development. When they feel supported and listened to it helps them develop the ability to cope with the stresses of life and how to overcome negative feelings. This ability to withstand, cope and recover is called resilience. You can find out more about resilience in our guide to child development: Meet the Brains.

Mental health at different ages

It’s always good for parents to talk regularly with their child from an early age about how they are feeling. This helps you to develop a warm and open relationship with your child. They will feel confident sharing their emotions and will trust that you’ll listen, try to understand them and help them to work things out. Sometimes though, parents will still need to ask children directly if everything is alright or if something has happened.

If you’re unsure about this, read our tips on helping children with their mental health. Or please get in touch if you would like to talk things through.

Very young children can get really upset easily and regularly, and this ‘emotional overload’ is usually a completely normal (though often exhausting!) result of their brains not yet knowing how to cope. For pre-school children, the best way to protect and establish wellbeing is simply by being there to hug them, soothe them, calm and reassure them.

Sometimes distressed, aggressive or fearful behaviour at this early age can be a sign that a child has suffered a traumatic experience or that something important has changed in their world.

The upside though is that children, particularly younger children, are also resilient. If a child has had a difficult start in life they can recover and repair from it, if they have adults who can love and protect them.

Find out more about attachment, trauma and resilience in our guide to child development.

School can be a time when a child’s mental wellbeing comes to the fore. Children may be more likely to look to peers to confide in, as they get older, and parents are less likely to know what is going on in their child’s world. 

Your child’s behaviour may be a signal that they are struggling to cope with a stressful change in their life – which could be anything from a new teacher, moving home, bullying, divorce or the death of a loved one.

Children can have many worries and anxieties which are normal and healthy. While these shouldn’t affect their mental wellbeing, it’s important to encourage them to come to you with their worries rather than bottling them up.

One example is the impact of news. The 24 hour news cycle, and the internet, means that children now regularly see scary and traumatic events which they can struggle to make sense of.

Try to answer your children’s questions about news stories – or anything else that’s worrying them – honestly and reassuringly. Make sure your child understands that bad things do happen, but not anywhere near as widely as it can seem from the news.

Teenagers usually have clear ideas about what pressures their generation faces and if these are affecting them personally. Parentline encourages parents to have open conversations about these issues, and talking about a subject in general terms and not about your own child can be a good way to bring up sensitive topics. It also reassures your child that you want to understand and care for them.

Teenage brains are ‘rewiring’ for adulthood and this can mean they are more at risk of developing mental health problems. Many people coping with emotional distress in adulthood first experienced this as a teenager.

There has been a rise in young people experiencing mental health issues in recent years, but there is no clear agreement as to why. Some reasons that have been suggested include:

  • better diagnosis of mental health issues
  • more pressures at school and in life
  • the growth of social media and the internet.

Talking to your teenager isn’t always easy, but these tips and suggestions might help. Or to talk things through, please get in touch.