Angst and mood swings are part of adolescence but how do you know when it’s something more serious? Here’s how to spot the difference.

A young boy wearing a hooded jacket looks downcast.

Parents know their children better than anyone. Yet, as kids grow into young adults, they can become harder to read and less likely to communicate.

Around 1 in 4 people between the ages of 16 and 24 experience a mental health issue. Over 75% of these problems occur before the age of 25. And for those who do experience one, they’re less likely to seek help than those in other age groups.

As a parent, there are some early signs of mental health issues you can look out for to recognise when extra support is needed. Plus, there are things you can do to help your child’s healthy emotional development.

What signs should I look out for?

There’s no doubt that hormones, growth spurts and discovering new relationships are a normal part of growing up but ongoing feelings of sadness, irritability or anxiety are not.

Here are some common early signs of mental health issues in young people:

Stress

A tiny bit of stress is okay, but excessive and ongoing worrying, irritability or restlessness may be a sign that your child could do with some help or support.

Drug or alcohol use

It’s not unusual for young people to experiment with drugs and alcohol, but you should be wary if you notice your child regularly drinking or smoking.

Change in attitude and interests

Young people cycle through different interests quickly, but you should pay close attention if they stop doing activities they would normally enjoy, are constantly negative about their hobbies, or have difficulty concentrating.

Withdrawn

Stay attuned to how your child interacts with friends or family. Choosing not to participate in regular family activities or even losing friends could be a sign there’s something wrong.

Emotional outbursts

As a parent you get used to your child’s mood swings; especially as they grow into teenagers or young adults. Be attentive if these outbursts begin to occur on a regular basis or are triggered by insignificant events.

Negative talk

There are going to be ups and downs but be wary if conversations are always negative. Comments like ‘I’m a failure’, ‘nothing good happens to me’ or ‘people would be better off without me’ may be a sign of lingering issues.

Changes in sleeping or eating patterns

If your child is having difficulties falling or staying asleep, restlessness or unsatisfying sleep or their eating patterns start to change, like refusing to eat or eating a lot, this may be a sign they need extra support.

I’m worried. What should I do?

If you believe your child is struggling with a mental health issue, there are things you can do to support them.

Talk about it

Be honest with them if you are concerned about their mental health. Ask them what support you can provide. If they don’t know, offer suggestions and be prepared to be rejected. The key is to keep the conversation going. Learn more about starting the conversation.

Get active

Involve them in your routine outside of family activities. It could be as simple as running errands, going shopping or doing exercise together. They may open up during a car trip or feel confident to speak about how they’re feeling away from their normal routine. Another way is to involve them in decisions around the home and give them responsibility like deciding what’s for dinner and letting them prepare it.

Avoid judgement

Don’t tell them to 'just calm down' or ‘get over it’ if they’re distressed. They need to be taken seriously. If they don’t want to talk to you, let them know they can talk to other trusted adults like a teacher, school counsellor or sports coach.

Get help

Support them in looking for help and talking to a health professional. It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers, and there are professionals able to support your child with mental health issues. Your child has a right to privacy and may feel more comfortable talking to someone who is impartial. Find out more about how you can support your child.

How can I get help for my child?

If your child is at serious and immediate risk, call 000 if it is a life-threatening situation or Lifeline on 13 11 14 for crisis support.

Otherwise, you could take them to your GP or call the Medibank Mental Health Phone Support service on 1800 644 325 for some advice from our team of mental health professionals, 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

If a young person you know needs help but doesn't want it, it can leave you feeling frustrated and hopeless. Make sure you look after yourself and reach out for support if you need it.

For more information and support

Beyond Blue
Mental health services for all ages – call 1300 224 636 or chat online.

headspace
Mental health service for ages 12-25 – call 1800 650 890 or chat online.

ReachOut.com
Youth mental health information – visit the website for info or use the online forum.

Kids Helpline
Select the Parentline to talk to someone.