Dr. Waters on mental health and stress in children and teens

A Better You

Dr. Laura Waters, a pediatrician at Mercy Hospital, discusses stress in infants, children and teens, and ways to recognize it.

Recognizing signs of stress in your child

Signs of stress and mental health challenges are not the same for every child or teen, but there are some common symptoms.

Infants, toddlers and young children may show backward progress in skills and developmental milestones . They may also have increased problems with:

  • fussiness and irritability, startling and crying more easily, and more difficult to console.
  • falling asleep and waking up more during the night.
  • feeding issues such as frantic nippling, more reflux , constipation or loose stools, or new complaints of stomach pain.
  • separation anxiety, seeming more clingy, withdrawn, or hesitant to explore.
  • hitting, frustration, biting, and more frequent or intense tantrums .
  • bedwetting after they’re potty trained.
  • urgently expressed needs while seeming unable to feel satisfied.
  • conflict and aggression or themes like illness or death during play

Older children and adolescents may show signs of distress with symptoms such as:

  • changes in mood that are not usual for your child, such as ongoing irritability, feelings of hopelessness or rage, and frequent conflicts with friends and family.
  • changes in behavior, such as stepping back from personal relationships. If your ordinarily outgoing teen shows little interest in texting or video chatting with their friends, for example, this might be cause for concern.
  • loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed. Did your music-loving child suddenly stop wanting to practice guitar, for example? Did your aspiring chef lose all interest in cooking and baking?
  • a hard time falling or staying asleep, or starting to sleep all the time. 
  • changes in weight or eating patterns, such as never being hungry or eating all the time.
  • problems with memory, thinking, or concentration.
  • less interest in schoolwork and drop in academic effort .
  • changes in appearance, such as lack of basic personal hygiene (within reason, since many are doing slightly less grooming during this time at home).
  • an increase in risky or reckless behaviors, such as using drugs or alcohol .
  • thoughts about death or suicide, or talking about it (see “A word about suicide risk,” below).

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